More Light Rail Presents Itself as the Answer for a Growing Phoenix

» 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.

30 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Andrew

    Excellent article! I would also describe the existing light rail here in Phoenix as just adequate. Without a grade-separated track, it must frequently stop for traffic lights and is limited by the posted speed limits. It averages less than 20 mph. This is much too slow to cross the sprawling city in a reasonable time. I love to use it to go for about 5 miles in either direction–anything more than that and I would rather use my car.

    When I look at the map of the future light rail system, I think it is a very flawed plan. It is a sprawled out light rail system for a sprawled out city. I think a better investment would be to start upgrading all the bus lines to BRT, and limit the light rail to 2 or 3 lines to connect the denser areas.

  • Andrew Lynch

    So is this the point in Phoenix’s transit history where they should consider a heavy commuter rail to speed up travel times?

    • Nathanael

      There’s already a set of schemes for that, which you can probably find somewhere on the web. They usually start with a line down the Grand Avenue corridor, on the BNSF tracks, which runs diagonally to the northwest from downtown Phoenix on a straight route with lots of commerce (for Phoenix) along the entire length.

  • I agree with your conclusion. Phoenix needs to densify into an actual city much more than it needs a commuter shuttle for suburbanites. Without the land use, this is all kind of a waste of time.

    That having been said, the places a city like Phoenix can densify most easily are going to be the commercial corridors. If they can put a string of urban pearls along each of these lines, *then* they’ll be worth it.

    • Phoenix needs to densify into an actual city much more than it needs a commuter shuttle for suburbanites.

      That’s the problem that I see as a railfan in attempting to explain public transport issues to suburbanites. Yes, you’ll end up spending lots of money on park and ride style stations with long stretches between stations, but it’s better than having the same commuters try drive into work on existing arterials and freeways. I will not argue that there’s no market for some surbanites to move into smaller, more urban dwellings, but judging from some of the stereotypical House Hunters couples who balk at homes on smaller 1950s styles lots as being “too close with no privacy”, I think we’re still going to have to build something to cater to suburbanites lest they end up driving to work, or switching from downtown employment to suburban employment.

      And for FWIW, there needs to be an emphasis on dense office space as well. It makes little sense to have dense residential areas, but commercial office space is still in sprawling office parks that require auto access. You need both to ensure a properly functioning system to minimize car usage. The question remains if real estate developers are willing to build denser office space, especially if cheaper alternatives will exist in suburban locations.

      • Having too many park-and-rides isn’t going to improve light rail. The gold standard here for low-density cities should be Calgary, a postwar sprawl-burg with rail ridership per metro area population not much lower than New York’s. Calgary’s strategy is to have just a few park-and-rides, to cut construction costs; instead, the city remodels the bus system in areas where light rail opens to feed the trains.

      • Nathanael

        How dense is Calgary’s *commercial and industrial* space, however?

        You can actually deal with quite a lot of spread-out housing in a mass transportation system quite easily. Spread out workplaces are a pain in the neck.

  • Ethan

    Sorry for digressing, but I’m surprised no one is commenting about the volcanic ash causing disruption to flights in Europe. This is more reason why intercity rail transportation is needed. At least Europeans could look at trains as an alternative to flights. If such an event affected North America tomorrow the passengers will almost certainly be SOL.

    • Adirondacker12800

      We survived the flight ban back in 2001

      • Ethan

        But 9/11 only grounded flights for a certain period of time. No one has any idea how long this volcano will disrupt flights in, to, or from Europe, and it’s not impossible the eruption will continue for many weeks or longer.

        Those who need to get to Europe could at least fly to Spain or Italy and take a train to France/Germany/England. There is nothing that could be done if a similar disaster strikes North America.

      • Nathanael

        Last I checked Amtrak and VIA Rail are still running, so yes, if (for instance) the entire Pacific Northwest were covered in ash, people *could* fly into Chicago and take the train. The trains would all be full, of course, since we don’t have nearly enough trains — and they’re too slow. But we do have passenger trains.

        If flights were shut down in Mexico, on the other hand, it would be *totally* out of luck, having destroyed its passenger train network under Vincente Fox. It’s just missing entirely. People would all take to the roads.

    • Spokker

      Eurostar to the rescue!

      http://www.businessweek.com/news/2010-04-15/iceland-eruption-prompts-eurostar-scramble-by-stranded-flyers.html

      However, the transportation system minus air could not handle the load, and many people remain stranded. Though I think the situation is better than if the Chunnel had not been built.

      I think the media makes a big stink about these things. Most people just ride it out and life goes on.

    • Woody

      I’m expecting nearly a dozen big bankruptcies. Who’s first? British Airways, Aer Lingus, Scandinavian Air Systems, Finnair, KLM-Air France, Lufthansa, and more, oh yeah, including Icelandic Air. How long can British Airways survive with no flights into or out of Heathrow? All the big airlines in the US at least operate from more than one hub. Even so, a huge part of the flights of Delta and Continental, and a part of the others, consists of flights to Europe, and domestic flights are fed with connecting passengers coming from Europe. Is this event covered by insurance? Will we see another bail out, this time for airlines, or for their insurers? And your frequent flyer miles …

  • Tom West

    Phoenix built an LRT line through the downtown core than had sufficient capacity to meet predicted and actual passenger numbers. Howvere, the article is right that an greatly expanded network could be limietd by the capacity of teh current route. So,I suggest they expand until this section is at or near capacity, and then upgrade it to allow future expansion.

  • One of the weird things about this plan is that the radials to downtown are all branches of a single line, while the lines that avoid downtown do not branch.

  • calwatch

    The Phoenix metro area needs to have a lot more robust service, with BRT on bus lanes, before they consider new lines. Extending the current line to Metro Center and further into Mesa to Superstition Springs Mall should be enough for the next 10 years. Currently buses stop running at 10 p.m. and running on an average half hour headway during the base and weekends – while adequate for a suburban area, inadequate for a city.

  • SFHope

    Phoenix needs express tracks.

    Freeway alignments are horrible for stations but great for express tracks. They should consider punching some tracks up the freeways with few-to-no-stations and have them rejoin the local lines after a 10 mile jog.

    Express tracks that follow the local line and offer the option of shuffling which stations get express service is ideal, but doesn’t work so well in practice when trains don’t get guaranteed priority at intersections and are forced to slow down or stop at them.

    Why this instead of commuter rail? Transfers. Transfers are a real killer — especially with commuter rail’s service frequency problem.

    • Transfers are a killer when they’re done wrong. So is commuter rail. Unfortunately, there’s no good example in the US of either done right. There are, however, plenty of such examples in the rest of the world. Germany and Switzerland time their transfers and make them cross-platform; they also run lightweight commuter trains with just one operator and turn them around quickly, ensuring high service frequencies are economically feasible.

  • poncho

    where would that line go that runs off the map in the northwest corner? LA :)? BTW that looks to be at least 50 miles long since it starts south of tempe and near chandler.

    whats the longest single non-commuter rail line in the US?

    • The Blue Line in Chicago is 35 miles long. I’ve verified or eyeballed line lengths for all other US systems but BART, and there’s nothing longer. (However, the A to Far Rockaway in New York and the Red and Orange Lines in Washington come fairly close). BART probably has longer lines – I’m not sure. But it’s more like commuter rail, so it may not count.

  • Joseph E

    I’m surprised there is no plan for a rail line along Grand Ave, the SE to NW diagonal seen in the upper-left quadrant of the map. Although the land just south-west is industrial, many fairly dense residential areas (such as downtown Glendale) are right alone this major route. It would seem to me a better option for the West Phoenix and Glendale area than the current plans, if bus services were organized to connect well with this line to Downtown.

  • Alton in Big D

    Grand Avenue was upgraded into a freeway in all but name–so the don’t build near freeway rules apply, plus there is in fact commuter rail proposed for that. Commuter rail there is also complicated in that it’s one of the most congested single freight rail lines in the country.

    As for the plan–I think it’s terrific. This is a bold step for Phoenix and its suburbs. These lines hit the major suburban downtowns, Scottsdale, Chandler, Mesa, Glendale, which are significant employment centers, and by using major commercial streets which have a significant amount of underused land for redevelopment.

    And having lived there for most of my life, the speed thing is less of an issue than you might think. Jobs in metro Phoenix are spread out dramatically more than in many other cities–this is not a downtown-centered network, and it shouldn’t be. From nearly any point on this network, you’d be able to go in at least two directions and find a major employment center. In fact, at least two of the oddly shaped radial lines were done so that they would hit major centers like Intel and Boeing, for example.

  • Pantheon

    So some planners made up some fantasy lines with no funding. Where’s the news?

    • Thad

      It’s more of a discussion and reaction piece than hard news.

    • Max Wyss

      Well, what would be important, is that all the necessary planning and zoning measures are taken ASAP, such as securing the right of way etc.

      Actual funding is not imminent at this stage of planning.

      In the meantime, it would be a real necessity to find financing models which do not depend on economy and even less on the political goodwill of a few individuals, and which can, once established, not be overturned.

  • GM

    I had to smile when I read your comment about the 40 mile extent of the region. That’s small potatoes here in LA. And even here we are building a light rail system that covers a much greater distance, eventually extending from Santa Monica to Ontario Airport. Actually we’re re-building public transportation here, often using old right of ways that went out of service 40years ago.

  • Patty C

    Years ago a freeway system was built across the US. Today
    Shopping centers and businesses are concentrated along these corridors. To view light rail just by cost effectiveness can not take into account what history has taught us. It is an investment and one way to stop the sprawl and maybe rejuvenate existing areas neglected by the sprawl. Do we let developers continue to promote sprawl or do we improve what is already in place and turn development into redevelopers. The highest ridership was driven by a baseball game. Cardinal stadium, Jobbing.com arena and a couple of winter season baseball stadiums in the west valley next to a freeway system for starters. Scattered property in that area is already earmarked for development. The tug-a-war planning must look at many factors. I have enjoyed the valley since moving here three years ago and make almost daily decisions about trip planning and minimizing those trips especialy if they mean hopping through the urban suburbs. I am sure I am not alone.

  • I would love to see Light rail will planning on all Bell Road in Surprise and also I like to see Light rail will be in Chandler and Gilbert make easier for everyone to use it .
    Mary F.

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