» Planners suggest that the current 27-mile expansion plan isn’t big enough to meet the travel demands of the region’s population.
Now that they have gotten their hands wet, Phoenix’s leaders are pushing for a much larger transit investment than planned before the opening of their first light rail line. Apparently once you get a taste of the stuff, there’s no turning back.
Arizona’s first modern light rail transit line opened in December 2008, running twenty miles from Mesa to Alhambra’s Spectrum Mall, via Tempe, Sky Harbor Airport, and downtown Phoenix. The $1.4 billion Valley Metro Rail project was predicted to carry an average of 26,000 daily riders. But like many similar rail lines that have opened in recent years, Phoenix has shot past initial estimates, reaching an average of 35,000 daily users and succeeding in distributing traffic relatively evenly throughout the day and on weekends, a rarity for commuter-heavy transit systems.
The approval by Maricopa County voters in 2004 of the $9 billion Proposition 400 instituted a 1/2¢ sales tax that would extend the rail system by 27 more miles thanks to $2.3 billion in dedicated capital funds (beyond the initial 20-mile corridor). Six planned routes would extend the initial light rail line into North Phoenix, Glendale, Tempe, Mesa, and Paradise Valley, with some lines planned by 2012. By 2025, $2.7 billion will go towards improved bus service.
But that 57-mile rail network is only a taste of what the region’s planners hope to build, according to The Arizona Republic. Transit advocates have suggested a whole bevy of new routes worth considering that would extend the light rail system to every developed part of this four million-person region. Officials suggest that these other routes, which would expand the system by more than one hundred miles if built, would perform just as effectively as the current light rail line, which is to say adequately by U.S. standards.
No one has provided a clue as to where financing would come for these projects.
As the map above demonstrates, housing density is distributed relatively evenly throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area, which means that from the pure perspective of getting close to where people live, most of the lines that have been added to the region’s potential route map would indeed hit populated areas filled with potential train riders. On the other hand, with the vast majority of the region’s housing stock is made up of single-family homes, meaning that none of these lines are ever going to get much activity compared to similar routes in denser cities.
One problem that could arise results from the extended nature of the region: It’s almost forty miles in diameter, so getting from one end to the other, even by light rail, will never be simple. This is especially true because the existing line, which could serve as the system’s trunk route, is relatively dense with stations on average every 7/10th of a mile, slowing down trains significantly. Will commuters actually be interested in riding one hour or more from the region’s edge to the central business district? And if they do, won’t the central trunk line be overcharged with too many trains?
The fact that Central Phoenix, while growing, is not the overwhelmingly predominant business and retail district in the region suggests that it won’t be the main destination of many passengers, and that therefore many trains could avoid the downtown core altogether if the whole series of proposed routes were built. Because the region’s commercial activities are spread out in a series of “urban villages,” these circumferential lines would hit prominent destinations and find riders.
But the continued expansion of light rail into the far suburbs won’t address the paradox that plagues Phoenix’s urbanism: It is dense enough to make congestion a serious problem, but it is not dense enough to promote walkable, “livable” communities. By choosing to spread light rail from the core to the region’s edges, planners may be encouraging people even in automobile-dependent areas to switch to transit for at least some of their commutes. But at the same time, they may not be doing enough to promote transit-dependent lifestyles because they’ll be spreading the development potential associated with transit investments across the region, rather than in a few choice areas.
Perhaps there can be too much light rail for a city like Phoenix.
Nonetheless, for now the complex series of routes planners in the city have assembled is pure fantasy: there’s no money to back up the idea beyond the six first extensions now programmed.