At the opening ceremonies for TRAX 20 years ago, Carlton Christensen was a substitute speaker for fellow Salt Lake City Council Council members because their chairman was battling the Utah Transit Authority over the light rail system’s routes and disruptive construction.

“The opening wasn’t without controversy,” Christensen — now chairman of the UTA Board — remembered at the rail line’s 20th birthday celebration Wednesday. He says many criticized the cost of TRAX and wondered if it would attract riders and if it was worth tearing up Main Street.

“But as you look down Main Street now, it’s obvious we did the right thing,” he said at the event at City Creek mall. “Just look at all the high rises, the [Eccles] Theater and City Creek. TRAX helped attract that” by better handling commuters and downtown crowds.

Officials marked TRAX’s 20th birthday at a news conference by not only praising its benefits for riders, but especially lauding the economic development that they say it helps attract.

“It's amazing 20 years later to see the growth and the expansion along the light rail system,” Christensen said.

That happened well beyond Salt Lake City.

Murray Mayor Blair Camp said, for example, “Some would argue that that’s one of the reasons that Intermountain Medical Center even wanted to be there [in Murray next to a stop for TRAX and FrontRunner] because it ended up being such a great location for transit.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Murray Mayor Blair Camp speaks as officials celebrate the 20th anniversary of TRAX trains during a news conference at the City Creek TRAX stop on Main Street in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019.
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Camp said many undeveloped or underdeveloped areas in his city “now house nice residential and mixed-use facilities” attracted largely by nearby transit. “And there’s more to come.”

Midvale Mayor Robert Hale said TRAX “has been a marvelous growth opportunity for the center of the valley.”

For example, he said, tourists are able to take TRAX from the Salt Lake City International Airport to hotels in his city with a half-hour trip, and then take ski buses from there to slopes in another 30 minutes.

Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance, said the community should continue to invest in more TRAX expansion because it helps fuel economic growth.

“Local and state investment will be necessary for the major expansions of tracks,” he said. “This will ensure that the business community can be located in places where they can provide their employees with transportation options.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance, speaks as officials celebrate the 20th anniversary of TRAX trains during a news conference at the City Creek TRAX stop on Main Street in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019.
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That may be controversial because of the $2 billion debt that UTA amassed to build TRAX and FrontRunner so far. More than $1 of every $4 in UTA’s upcoming 2020 operating budget — 27.6%, to be exact — will go toward paying off its $2.1 billion debt.

Also, UTA promised before recent sales tax hikes that most new money would go to improve neglected bus service. However, amid pressure from state and business leaders, it started studying a possible $1 billion TRAX expansion through the old state prison site at the south end of Salt Lake Valley.

TRAX has defied warnings of early naysayers that it wouldn’t attract many riders.

It has grown from 1 million boardings in its first year to 293.4 million now.

The initial TRAX line that opened 20 years ago ran a straight line between Sandy and downtown Salt Lake City. It has been expanded seven times since then, adding service and spurs to such places as the airport, West Valley City, Daybreak, the University of Utah and Draper.

“Congratulations UTA on what is not just a 20-year anniversary, but a 20-year triumph,” Miller said.

UTA also honored eight employees who were with TRAX when it opened 20 years ago, and still work on it.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Frank Cosens, has been working for Trax since the very first day, 20 years ago, listens to speakers, as officials celebrate the 20th anniversary of TRAX trains during a news conference at the City Creek TRAX stop on Main Street in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019.
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“It was really cold and snowy” on opening day, remembers Frank Cosens, one of those employees who is a rail maintenance supervisor now. “That first day we were out cleaning snow out of switches,” and trying to handle big crowds excited to try it.

While Christensen, the UTA chairman, said Wednesday was much warmer than 20 years ago, “The skies are not much clearer, unfortunately" — showing continued need for TRAX to help cut pollution and inversions by reducing the number of cars on the road.