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A new TRAX line may be coming soon that would directly connect — without transfers — the University of Utah, downtown Salt Lake City and the airport. It would use existing rails without the need of new construction, aside from some minor signal work.

The Utah Transit Authority has won $2 million toward that effort through a federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement grant.

"It's a short-term operating grant" that would help run the line for up to three years, said UTA General Manger Michael Allegra.

He said the estimated operating cost is about $2 million a year. So UTA must come up with commitments for about another $4 million to allow running the line for at least the three years required by the grant before it could open.

The new grant "is a kick-off, starter fund we could use. But it's not enough money to run it" for those three years, Allegra said. "So we're looking for other funding partners," including perhaps the city, university, businesses or others that would benefit from the line.

Allegra said UTA has no projected or even hoped-for start date yet, and that depends on finding more financial partners. "Whenever the money comes, we'll be able to start the software development" for signals, begin the training of operators and start soon afterward. He said UTA does not need to buy any more train cars to operate the line.

The UTA used to offer direct service between the university and downtown Salt Lake City on what was once called the University Line — so needed rails and switches are in place. But when a TRAX extension was built to South Jordan, the Red Line then ran between that suburb and the university — bypassing downtown Salt Lake City unless riders transfer.

When the new airport TRAX extension was finished last year, UTA chose to connect it to the Green Line that runs through downtown Salt Lake City, then to West Valley City — and not the university — saying that allowed the most efficient configuration for the overall system.

Allegra said UTA envisions retaining the current Green, Red and Blue lines, but adding the fourth yet unnamed line to connect "with direct service the three largest traffic generators in the valley — downtown, the university and the airport."

He added the new line will probably go only as far as the Stadium station at the university, and not to the end-of-the-line Medical Center station.

The new line would also increase frequency of service at Salt Lake City stations, he said. Now, the Green and Red lines are running every 15 minutes at those stations. Adding new-line service between the already scheduled trains would increase weekday service to every 7.5 minutes between the university and downtown; 7.5 minutes between the airport, downtown and the university; and 5 minutes within the central business district (where the Blue line also runs).

Allegra said the new line could also help better connect the FrontRunner commuter rail system with the university. Those who exit it in downtown Salt Lake City need to make at least one transfer on TRAX from the Green or Blue lines, or take the No. 2 bus for direct service to the university.

Allegra said many riders have asked for the direct airport-downtown-university connection.

"I think there's a market and a thirst for making this connection. And anytime we get anybody out of a car and onto a train, it helps the air, the energy, the congestion," he said.