SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah is putting a finishing touch on a rapidly built system for rail transit with an extension to another Salt Lake City suburb.
Regular service on the Draper line starts Sunday, completing a network of light-rail and commuter trains stretching 87 miles along the urban corridor framed by the Wasatch Range.
The capstone of the transit plan doesn't mean Utah is finished building rail systems:
— Crews are building street cars that will rumble though the Salt Lake City neighborhood of Sugar House by December. That project is being separately funded by a mix of state, local and federal dollars.
— Government planners are looking to extend light-rail lines up Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, home to four of Utah's ski resorts east of Salt Lake City.
— The Utah Transit Authority says demand for light-rail could bring new extensions into Davis County, just north of Salt Lake City. It's also looking at extending the Draper line into Utah County.
But now for now, the authority's $2.5 billion vision for rail transit has been fulfilled. Officials said they will come at least $300 million under that figure when all receipts are counted, and two years ahead of schedule.
The projects were built with the help of $545 million in federal grants, including $116 million for the Draper extension, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at a ribbon cutting Friday.
Foxx called Utah's system "an example to the country of what transit can do to transform communities," The Salt Lake Tribune reported.
"It means better access to jobs for hard-working families. It means less time stuck in traffic. It means that the air is cleaner and clearer. It means that this region — which is already one of the fastest-growing regions in the country — will be better prepared to handle more people as they make the Salt Lake City region their home," Foxx said.
The commuter and light-rail stations have attracted more than $7 billion in private real-estate development, UTA General Manager Michael Allegra said.
Utah aggressively built a 140-mile rail system that has been rated as one of the most efficient for passengers in little more than a dozen years.
Yet it almost didn't happen, and the transit agency is struggling under the weight of projects.
Early on, state and municipal leaders objected to subsidizing rail with sales tax receipts, saying it would never pay to operate itself in a largely rural state.
But during the buildup to the 2002 Winter Olympics, and with Washington offering money, they got on board. The UTA has always maintained it won funding on the merits.
To afford operating new lines, UTA imposed service reductions, largely on rapid-bus transit and weekend and night service. Credit rating companies cut UTA's bond rating because of its heavy debt. And when UTA recently raised fares to $2.50, critics called it too much — and not worth a short ride.
The UTA is studying distance-based fares that would be calculated electronically by the mile, with passengers tapping smartphones across transit readers to record their boarding and departure. But the authority also wants to do away with the popular downtown free fare zone, a sticking point with Salt Lake City leaders. Transit officials have offered no timetable for a switch.