The Utah Transit Authority took a key step Wednesday that could lead eventually to a $1.2 billion TRAX extension through the soon-to-be-redeveloped Utah State Prison site in Draper and on to Lehi.

The UTA Board awarded an $800,000 contract to Parametrix to perform a feasibility study on whether such an extension — or perhaps an alternate such as a bus rapid transit line — is affordable and desirable and where the best route should be.

However, only $560,000 is available for the study. So the contract was divided into phases to allow early work to proceed while partners look for additional funding to finish it — perhaps from the Legislature or Silicon Slopes businesses in Lehi.

The study comes despite promises by UTA in recent years that it would focus any extra money in the foreseeable future on expanding its neighborhood bus service and not to build more train extensions — which in recent years created $2 billion in debt for the agency.

However, the state-sponsored Point of the Mountain Commission earlier this year started pressing for a TRAX extension through the prison site, saying redeveloping that area could generate billions in revenue throughout the Wasatch Front “if the right steps are taken.”

A study by Envision Utah for that commission said those “right steps” include about $3 billion in transportation improvements, including running TRAX through the area and extending the Mountain View Corridor freeway nearby.

“If we fail, those 150,000 jobs [envisioned from growth at the prison site] could go somewhere else,” Envision Utah CEO Robert Grow told the commission. Envision Utah President Ari Bruening added that it heard from many employers that “they are not willing to locate somewhere where there might be transit in 20 years,” but not immediately.

So officials decided to proceed with a feasibility study. UTA is the lead agency, with other partners including the Utah Department of Transportation, Draper, Lehi, South Jordan, Sandy, Salt Lake County, Utah County, the Wasatch Front Regional Council and the Mountainland Association of Governments.

The bulk of the money so far — $400,000 — is coming from a recent sales tax increase for transit.

UTA officials had promised in 2015 that if that increase were enacted, they would not use it for TRAX extensions but to improve bus service. (Salt Lake County voters defeated the Prop 1 tax hike in 2015, but the County Council imposed it last year after the Legislature allowed such a move without voter approval).

UTA Interim Executive Director Steve Meyer has said his agency is not breaking its earlier promise because the $400,000 is not coming from UTA’s share of the new tax hike. It is being generated instead through a complicated shifting of funds — from Salt Lake County’s share of the tax hike, which the county awarded to Draper for a transportation study. But Draper then asked the county to give the money directly to UTA as it oversees the study.

The new contract calls for the study to evaluate potential transit routes that not only would provide the best connections and regional mobility, but also weigh which would best help economic development in the area.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

UTA has stressed that it has not committed to a TRAX extension but is only evaluating it.

“We’ve recommended to the board and [it has] concurred that our focus needs to be on service” in its bus system, Meyer said earlier this year. “That should not preclude us from planning opportunities.”

He added that “if we fail to plan, we plan to fail…. Right now we’re in the study phase with a small investment from UTA to study a critical area.”

The funding so far comes from the $400,000 in tax hike funds shifted via Salt Lake County and Draper; $50,000 directly from UTA; $50,000 from UDOT; $35,000 from the Wasatch Front Regional Council; and $25,000 from the Mountainland Association of Governments.