In Arizona, Tripping the Light Rail Fantastic

Phoenix is dry, sprawling and traditionally dominated by cars. What does it have that Las Vegas doesn’t?

Phoenix’s Metro Light Rail carried 14.2 million passengers in 2013. | Photo by Tim Roberts

Phoenix’s Metro Light Rail carried 14.2 million passengers in 2013. | Photo by Tim Roberts

On a balmy autumn afternoon, the Metro Light Rail departs its northernmost terminus in Phoenix, whooshing south, then east through downtown, past high schools, museums, sports stadiums, office towers, Arizona State University’s downtown campus, the airport and into Tempe, past ASU’s vast main campus and scores of outlying apartment complexes. As the afternoon becomes rush hour, the cars go from nearly full to standing room only, packed with business people, students, shoppers, retirees, hipsters and plenty of bike riders. A little more than an hour and 20 miles later, the light rail reaches its opposite terminus in a commercial district in Mesa.

Despite an initial volley of public criticism, five years on, light rail is by most measures a success in this car-centric desert city, if you’re looking at ridership, community development and social connectivity, not to mention obvious eco-factors such as getting cars off the road and reducing pollution.

“Light rail has changed the city by making it more accessible,” says Ben Limmer, corridor and facility development manager for the regional transit authority, Valley Metro. “You can go to a ballgame, go to work, go to dinner easily. It’s also provided opportunities for economic development.”

“It’s has been embraced,” concurs Don Keuth, president of Phoenix Community Alliance, a heavy-hitting, nonprofit economic development organization that was a major proponent of the line. “Now, everyone wants light rail in their community.”

Meanwhile, in southern Arizona, Tucson is hoping for similar success for its new Sun Link streetcar, set to launch this summer on a four-mile route that links a medical center, the University of Arizona and downtown. “Our project has been 10 years in the making,” says Shellie Ginn, the streetcar’s project manager for Tucson’s Department of Transportation. “We’re hoping it breaks down connectivity barriers and gets ‘choice riders’—those who own a car but choose to ride—onboard.”

The Ride Wasn’t Always Smooth

light rail

The path and the destination: Phoenix Metro Light Rail under construction and in use. | Photo Courtesy Phoenix Valley Metro

light rail

Photo Courtesy Phoenix Valley Metro

In metro Phoenix, the history of the light rail dates to the 1990s, when voters began approving sales-tax increases to fund regional transit. By 2000, with federal funding also in place, the light-rail alignment had been approved—a dedicated, rail-only track down the center of main streets, linking activity zones in central Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa. Connecting ASU’s Tempe campus with its then-fledgling downtown Phoenix locale was a key element, allowing students to move easily between campuses.

The light rail’s 28 stations are architecturally pleasing, each equipped with seating, shade and landscaping. The line also integrates public art, ranging from tile work to an illuminated bridge over Tempe Town Lake that changes color as the light rail passes. Along the line, nine park-and-ride lots provide 3,600 free parking spots. The 50 electric-powered light-rail vehicles—purchased from a Japanese manufacturer and assembled in Phoenix—can each carry up to 175 seated and standing passengers, with space for wheelchairs and bike racks. Up to three can be linked to form a train.

Despite smooth sailing now, the light rail got off to a rough start, judging by critics and timing. Many pointed to the $1.4 billion construction cost, calling it an extravagant transit option aimed at what was then deemed a small segment of commuters. One local blogger suggested Valley Metro could have bought each daily rider a new Prius and enough gasoline to drive 10,000 miles a year and still come out ahead of building and operations costs.

Construction was another bugaboo, tying up streets and restricting access to businesses for months and, in some cases, years. Utility lines, in place for decades under city streets, turned out to be mysterious tangles. “You can’t do much about construction,” Keuth says. “You have to try to do it quickly. But for some businesses that weren’t very viable, the light-rail construction was the final straw.”


Metro Light Rail, Phoenix

  • Construction cost: $1.4 billion
  • Construction time: About 4 years
  • Initial length: 20 miles
  • Fare: $2 one way; $4 all day
  • Average weekday ridership in 2013: 43,619

Sun Link, Tucson

  • Construction cost: $196 million
  • Construction time: About 2 years
  • Initial length: 3.9 miles
  • Fare: $3.50 all day
  • Anticipated average weekday ridership: 3,600

Timing for the launch of the light rail couldn’t have been worse. The first paying passengers came on board in December 2008, just as the Great Recession was sinking its teeth into the community. Lenders were reluctant to open the purse strings for any development, transit-oriented or otherwise.

Operational costs were also attacked, especially when it became clear that fares and advertising opportunities on and in the trains would only account for a portion of the costs. “I don’t think light rail really pays for itself anywhere,” Keuth notes. “Usually only 30 to 40 percent of operational costs are paid by the fare box. The rest is subsidized.”

The naysayers had their day, but criticism waned because of several factors. For one, ridership has been growing. Metro light rail carried 14 million riders in 2012, an increase of 5.4 percent over 2011. Numbers went up again in 2013, albeit more subtly, to 14.2 million.

Building Better Cities

Despite the recession and its still-challenging aftermath, light rail has had a major impact on development. “That’s the absolute true value of having light rail,” Keuth says. “Rubber tires—a bus line—can be moved at any time. But you put rails in the ground, a developer knows the transit is always going to be there. They will build.” Empty lots and underutilized blocks still dot parts of the line, but there has been more than $5 billion in development to date along the light rail, says Keuth, with 65 percent coming from the private sector. ASU’s downtown campus is now a major presence, while nearby CityScape, a 1.2 million-square-foot mixed-use project, was completed in 2012. Elsewhere, apartments and condos are sprouting, and a string of indie restaurants, bars and shops have popped up.

In Tucson, the Sun Link project is having similar birth pangs and successes. Construction along the 18-stop line has been similarly brutal, impacting businesses with barricades and occasional street closures. “It’s an older part of town,” Ginn says. “When we went to relocate utilities, we found things from the early 1900s. There were a lot of unknowns.”

Critics have also been vocal about the relatively short length of the Tucson line, noting that it doesn’t link outlying neighborhoods, work areas or the airport. Detailed analysis, Ginn says, showed that this starter line was in the right spot for maximum activities and potential initial ridership. Extensions, while not yet funded, are being studied.

The Sun Link stations and the public art are in place, and the streetcars (which, as opposed to light rail, run individually, unlinked, along tracks that can be shared with cars) are being tested. Ginn says Sun Link is already successful. The project generated 500 construction jobs and has already spurred $800 million in development along the line, including student housing, apartments, retail and restaurants. “Sun Link is a development tool,” Ginn says. “We’re creating density along the line. Sales-tax [revenues] are up. Property values are up.”

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One of Tucson’s Sun Link streetcars during testing: The project has spurred $800 million in development along the line. | Photo by Martha Lochert

In Phoenix, two three-mile extensions have broken ground. A $200 million stretch farther east into downtown Mesa is expected to open by 2016, as is a $300 million set of tracks farther north in Phoenix. Also up is a 2.5-mile streetcar link from the light rail down Mill Avenue in Tempe. Earlier this year, Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport opened its automated Sky Train connection to the light rail. This time around, Limmer notes, Valley Metro’s construction team has been more proactive with residents and businesses in construction zones, garnering input and offering marketing help.

When all is said and done, Limmer says, Metro light rail should have a web of 58 miles by about 2032, stretching farther into Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa, as well as neighboring Glendale. “Certainly, older cities have longer light-rail lines,” Limmer says, “but we are providing options here.”

Light-rail riders have quickly figured out those options: Traffic-free commutes to work or school. Seamless ways to get to a concert or basketball game. Friday night bar crawls along Central or Mill avenues. Dinner in a part of town previously unexplored.

“Years ago, it was a constant battle with the naysayers,” Keuth says. “Now it’s, ‘How soon can you get it in my area?’”

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