Phoenix reached a major milestone in its growing romance with mass transit over the summer: The first shovels hit the ground for construction of a new light rail station at 50th and Washington streets in central Phoenix.
The rail stop, slated for completion in 2019, is the first capital project under the city's Transportation 2050 plan, approved by voters two years ago, to expand investment for bus service, light rail construction and street improvements.
“There has been a real commitment to light rail because it moves people to not only downtown Phoenix or downtown Tempe or downtown Mesa but to all the job centers and education centers in between,” said Lars Jacoby, spokesman for the Phoenix Public Transit Department.
The return on the region's years of investment was perhaps best illustrated two years ago when the chief operating officer for State Farm Insurance told an audience at Arizona State University that the Illinois-based company decided to open a $600 million Southwestern hub in Tempe in large part because of access to light rail, buses and shuttles.
But the region's level of dedication hasn't always been so evident. For decades, metro Phoenix's steady growth was more than matched by its love affair with cars, creating ever-worsening traffic congestion. Throughout the 1990s, Phoenix was repeatedly chosen as having the worst public transportation among U.S. cities.
That spurred the city and the region to act. A measure passed by voters in 2004 extended by two decades a countywide, half-cent sales tax to fund transportation in Maricopa County. The tax is projected to raise $8.5 billion from 2005 to 2025. When added to state and federal transportation funds, it has created a pool of over $17 billion to finance a regional transportation plan that includes light rail, new freeways, dozens of regional bus routes and more than 2,000 new buses.
Using those funds, the Maricopa Association of Governments has committed a total of $5.7 billion to its long-range Regional Transportation Plan. Ken Simonson, chief economist for Associated General Contractors of America, said the transportation-infrastructure plan would create 16,000 jobs per year for 10 years.
“Not only are construction jobs important to the construction industry, but also to suppliers, distributors, retailers and families,” said Simonson.
Meanwhile, Transportation 2050, coined T2050, sets out a plan to triple light rail's reach in Phoenix by adding 42 miles of rail over three decades, while also providing late-night bus and dial-a-ride service citywide, according to city planners.
“Investment in transit has been a major motivator in the creation of nearly $9 billion in public and private development, as well as neighborhood revitalization along the Valley Metro Rail corridor,” said Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell, chair of the Valley Metro Rail board.
Still, those advances hardly overshadow the Phoenix bus system's role. Buses move far more passengers than does the light rail system. But, according to Jacoby, light rail ridership is exceeding original projections. “We’ve seen it continually go up, year after year since it was instituted here in the Valley,” he said.
The next big goal on the radar is the south-central light rail project, a 5-mile line connecting downtown Phoenix to Baseline Road in South Phoenix. "That will be the first time we’ve added a light-rail segment that’s not connected to the current one," Jacoby said.
The long-term T2050 plan will result in numerous projects spread out over a three-decade lifespan. It includes street maintenance, new pavement, bike lanes, sidewalks and greater accessibility for the disabled. “The time frames for the different projects – whether it’s connecting downtown to I-10 west, connecting into Glendale, or connecting into the Paradise Valley Mall-area – are all further out on the horizon,” noted Jacoby.
Ultimately, the development of the system was really a matter of vision and political will by local leaders, Jacoby says. And support grew once light rail became available in 2008, according to Eric Anderson, transportation director for the Maricopa Association of Governments.
"It continues to experience great ridership," Anderson said. "Before it opened, we were projecting around 25,000-30,000 riders per day and we’re well into 40,000 now. I think the people who live here have really embraced it.”
Anderson notes that the light rail expansion has spurred other construction projects in long-neglected areas. Since the opening of that original 20-mile section, redevelopment has sprouted in downtown Phoenix area and downtown Tempe as well as along the rail line.
“We have these nodes of activity, such as downtown Phoenix and downtown Tempe, and the rail system is starting to connect these high-density nodes," Anderson said. "Once you have that, property values increase and it can support higher-density development. That’s exactly what we see happening here.”