There’s a very interesting batch of transit news out of Arizona:

  • Highway builder extraordinaire, the Arizona Department of Transportation, has initiated a study of passenger rail on the Phoenix-Tucson I-10 “Sun Corridor”, explicitly acknowledging in the associated video that as population grows, it becomes impossible to fix traffic congestion with more freeway lanes.
  • The rock-ribbed conservative Phoenix suburb of Mesa has become a surprisingly enthusiastic partner in extending Valley Metro’s light rail system into central Mesa. Mesa appears to value the light rail extension both as a dramatic improvement to mobility and a tool to spur a pedestrian-oriented revitalization of its downtown. They learned the hard way that you need to get the zoning right.
  • In addition, Mesa has traded in millions of dollars of new roads and expressway construction in favor of fast-tracking a further eastward extension of the light rail system to Gilbert Road, beyond the Central Mesa extension above. Knowing Mesa, I’m frankly astonished this could ever happen.
  • Phoenix has scraped together the money to pay for a western extension of the light rail line, which had been deferred almost indefinitely after the near-collapse of the city’s tax base in the housing crash. The city has also found the money to begin a pilot of a limited-stop express service to the south of downtown, to test the demand for faster transit on that corridor.
  • The Tucson Streetcar is coming along nicely.
  • (UPDATE) The Phoenix Sky Train airport people mover is nearly done. Phoenix Sky Harbor chose to connect its main terminal to the light rail station years before the rental car center.

I have personal reasons for caring about Mesa and Arizona, but if you don’t, why should you care? I think you should, because when progressive ideas about transportation and land use start to take root in such wildly hostile territory as Arizona, we’re perhaps turning the corner in the national debate about transportation and land use.

34 Replies to “Dispatches from Arizona”

  1. On my last visit to Tucson the downtown area was gridlocked because of a freeway expansion project, the streetcar was still just a proposal and Governor Napolitano had just floated the idea of HSR between Phoenix and Tucson. Good luck to them.

  2. Hostility toward business as usual freeway and road expansion, and associated out of control spending, is a natural conservative position. One of the few rays of hope during the Bush administration was Federal funding for a pilot congestion pricing project on 520. That money was one of the reasons WSDOT had to get tolling setup so early.

    Good to see more conservative areas embrace transportation policy that involves something other than a god given right to a Hummer and wars to secure the necessary oil supply.

    1. God-given North American oil resources, I believe they’re calling them now. The “burn it all” adherents of Vehumet still have plenty of fuel for their pyres, promising course corrections aside.

    2. “Natural conservative positions” and the Republican Party diverged a loooong time ago, sometime around Ronald Reagan’s election. That’s why this is so surprising. “Conservative areas” has been code for “Republican areas” for decades.

      1. I mean, if you looked up “conservative” in a dictionary, I would be an illustration. But politically, that’s not what “conservative” means any more.

  3. How much of this new transit service in Arizona is actually going to run all day vs. only rush hour? If it does run all day, does all day mean 7 AM-6 PM Monday-Friday or 5 AM-1 AM seven days a week? And does all day service mean hourly, like CalTrain, or will it have a schedule more like BART and run frequently enough to actually be usable for spontaneous travel? Finally, how fast is this light rail supposed to run? Will it be similar in speed to Link? Or will it be more like the Portland Streetcar?

    If they are interested in true transit-oriented development, vs. a system that serves one specific type trip, with the expectation that everybody has to buy a car to drive everywhere else, these are important questions that will need answering.

    1. Except the I-10 train, the only thing on that list which doesn’t or won’t run all day every day is the South Central Rapid, which is just a pilot project. No-one quite knows what the schedule for any I-10 train would be yet. Phoenix’s light rail moves pretty quick. No idea how fast the Tucson streetcar will be.

    2. All the I10 routes that are proposed are shown here –

      Time and speed varies by route but all are about 70-90 minutes end to end, with avg speeds between 70-90mph. Frequency will be determined. But this is commuter rail, so i doubt it will be every 10 minutes.

      The light rail in Phoenix (METRO), that is being extended into Mesa, and all over, runs every 12min 7am to 630pm, 20 minutes otherwise. It use to be 10/15, but budget cuts happened. I am sure as the expansions and more investment happens this will continue to lower. They also have other projects in the works, like the Mill Ave streetcar, that will connect more people to it. The trains run at the posted speed limit, there is no grade separation, but along most of the line that speed is 40-45 mph. The current 20 mile line replaced a bus line and completes it in 60 minutes, vs 8- min for the bus. There is no travel time difference between rush hour or not as they have separate rights of way with signal priority.

      And I don’t think you understand the challenges Phoenix faces at all. There is so much sprawl there and there has been so little investment in transit up to this point that there is no way they are gonna just throw out a system that will allow people to get rid of their cars. I did while I lived there and it’s doable with a bike, but it’s pretty extreme, not something an average person would do. But the light rail has been an astounding success and has not only changed the city, but people appetite for transit. So lots of projects planned and coming but its more than that, people have to actually start living near transit and not sprawled out into eternity, and that is slowly happening there. Lots of big residential development near stops lately. So your questions require a crystal ball to answer… but the attitude is toward making it successful. The fact that Phoenix has scraped together money to build more rail and Mesa has foregone road and highways is ASTOUNDING. Unbelievable in fact. It shows how much the attitude toward transit has changed there… They have exactly what they need, a combination of support from the government and from the public, and with that, the kinds of services people need and want will come about, and clearly are.

      1. Thanks for the reality check on PHX.
        I have several friends down there and an ASU grad wife that all ditto what you said. They looked at what they had and decided on projects they could do in reasonable timeframes to kick start mass transit.
        So far, a smashing success story.
        OK, back to Bellevue.

  4. It’s much easier to build a case to pay for transit projects when you have tons and tons of totally flat land available…

    1. But it makes it slightly more difficult when everyone drives everywhere, and all of your cities and towns are so spread out that they are difficult to serve with connecting buses, let alone cycling and transit.

    2. Really, everywhere has challenges. Phoenix is extraordinarily spread-out and the weather makes this a difficult place to get transit ridership up. Yes, cold rain sucks, but sustained 115f heat is really quite dangerous, and while there are a few small areas where transit runs relatively frequently, much of the bus system is characterized by busses that recently went from running every 20-30 minutes to now every 30-50 minutes. With that drop in headways will come a drop in ridership, particularly summer ridership, when ASU students have left town and anyone with other options will take those other options.

      On top of that, despite the fact that all Valley busses are branded as Valley Metro, that’s simply an overlay of the old-school inefficient municipality-specific transit that has bedeviled Phoenix since forever. Each individual town can decide how much bus service they want – or don’t want – and while Mesa has slowly come around to LRT, a lot of the suburban cities refuse to properly fund their bus routes, leading to some very frustrating arbitrary situations where you get kicked off a bus line at the city line, perhaps 1-2 miles from a key transfer. This is particularly common in some of the outlying employment centers such as Scottsdale, Mesa, and Chandler.

      It’s definitely better than it was. But that’s, sadly, not saying much.

  5. I’m from Phoenix originally and saw the the whole process of the light rail, from conception to seeing its end effects. The transformation that city has gone under since that light rail is incredible. Downtown Phoenix use to be a ghost town at night, barring a sporting event. My friend lived downtown pre-rail and we could go out at 9pm and walk down the middle of downtown streets and not see a soul. Now its downtown is a million times more active. Tons of restaurants and bars have gone in. More events. More stuff. And with it a boom in mid/high rise residential developments. Now they have BRT with actual signal priority and all these plans for more rail… in a city that use to despise and lament transit. One of the biggest opponents of building the rail even said in a NYTimes article that she was wrong (

    Nothing has changed that place more than building that light rail. Of course, the whole process of building it was also smooth because they don’t vote on the color of brick at each station before they decide to study which colors of brick are most calming to the widest group of socio-economic groups, and then sending it back to a vote so we can get funds to form the organization who will be responsible for ordering the bricks, whenever we finally decide which bricks to get.

    1. Could another factor be transplants from elsewhere in the country in particular from urban areas who are in the Phoenix area solely because of their job and whom find the endlessly sprawling subdivisions and highway living repulsive? Is it that all the urban minded people flock to live in the neighborhoods along the LRT line for the closest thing they can get to urban living in AZ?

      1. You would think some of us “transplants” to the Seattle area would have effected a similar sea change around here in increasing the availability of mass transit:(.

  6. Mesa, Phoenix, and Tucson suddenly have really good attitudes and stuff is getting done. (However, it will be a cold day in hell before Scottsdale changes *its* attitude!)

    As for the Tucson-Phoenix intercity rail corridor — this is not the first study. Gloomily, I suspect the state government of doing a study as a way of NOT actually running the trains. Tucson has been pushing to run trains down that corridor for a long time now, and Phoenix for slightly less long. I hope the state government is actually trying to get it done, but I worry that this is just more “study hell”.

  7. What is it about this breed of conservative in AZ that is loving light rail compared to other parts of the country???????? Is there something in the water?

    Christ Almighty, in a more so-called “liberal” region like ours, we find reasons for not expanding and building rail where there is need.

    1. Because the windy rainy weather here scours the pollutants out of the air, and allows us to act like we’re environmentalists, while hiding our LA style driving habits.

      We’re not only SNOW wimps, but we’re also RAIN wimps.

      And we’re different than everyone else… anywhere…

      So put that in your pipe and smoke it !!

    2. It is the “Seattle Way”.

      The normal way:
      Any commuter route with more than 15 miles of Freeway Travel = OTR Highway Coach (MCI)

      The Seattle Way:
      Low-Floor Transit Coaches with Suburban Seating, unless the riders rebel. All of the MCI’s are put on long-distance Pierce County services, but they are assigned based on capacity needs rather than route distance. Witness the 592 assigned a 9200 or (gasp!) 9400

  8. Valley Metro’s Light Rail line has been amazingly successful since in opened in 2009, the same year as Seattle’s Link. Some comparison stats, presented without comment:

    Data Seattle Phoenix
    Avg. Weekday Ridership 26,200 41,300
    Length 15.6 miles 20 miles
    Ridership per Mile 1,680 2,070
    Number of stations 13 28
    Ridership per Station 2,020 1,480
    Average speed 25 mph 19 mph

    Link after University Link opens is a more fair comparison to Valley Metro, since then Link will be close to 20 miles long, and connect the region’s main university (UW/ASU) to the region’s main airport and downtown.

    1. While I agree, there’s much to be learned from the comparison, it’s essential to look at more than just miles of track and stop spacing — the systems are fundamentally different in design.

      METRO is a canonical example of a light rail system — semi-exclusive right of way (except for two segments near Tempe town lake) with smaller stops (like Link in the RV) and stops spaced about 1/2 mile to a mile apart. It also has a bunch of surface park and rides, which are good way to ramp up ridership quickly — until they fill up (some of them already seem to be near that point, anecdotally). Crucially, the initial segment made the connection between the area’s primary and secondary urban centers (downtown Phoenix and downtown Tempe/ASU).

      I think the main lesson here is the importance of connecting urban centers. But, it’s crucial to note that replicating a system exactly like this in Seattle would be impossible. Downtown Phoenix’s roads are uncongested enough and the blocks are big enough that the train can make it through downtown on the surface at a slow, but reasonable speed. You probably can’t do that in downtown Seattle — you need grade separation for the downtown segment here.

      1. Yes, everything between Rainier and Northgate absolutely had to be in a tunnel, except for a short pop along the busway. Now it’s full, and we need another one intertwining through our existing one and the new mega tunnel for cars.
        Don’t tell any of our whiz bang politicians you can dig a hole and bury an entire building in it.

      2. Yes, the differences are huge. All the roads that this was built on, except the most downtown areas, are huge avenues with 6 lanes and 40-45mph speed limits. No need for tunnels, no commitment to grade separation at all. But their choice of a first line was extremely effective. That being said, I think Seattle made a similar choice, a starter line that, while it might not be the highest demand to begin with, is essential as a backbone of any system. It may not be the biggest bang for the buck out of the gate, but in the end you need to take that first step.

        Also, Phoenix’s streets are the definition of a grid layout, and they are huge. Most buses simply run NS or EW along a major street. METRO cuts across a wide swath of the valley EW and anywhere you get off will be a street that connect you to a major bus line. Connections are easy and plentiful in this way. Need to go up 7th st? Take the rail to 7th st, get off and get on the 7. The topology helps them a lot here.

        Urban centers are huge too, as mentioned. This line connects Downtown Phoenix, the Airport, Downtown Tempe (ASU) and downtown Mesa. I’m not sure we could compare anything to that, Tempe has about the population of Tacoma and the largest university by enrollment, while Mesa has a pop of 400k+. The light rail only barely hits Mesa at this point, but still. Also ASU has a big campus in downtown Phoenix now, so travel between the two campuses is big. NBA, MLB, College Football, College Basketball all have venues on the line and because the rail connects these major centers people like to ride it to the games a lot. In fact its relatively common for people to park their cars at a stop and ride the rail into the city to have a night of carefree bar hopping. Basically with all this it’s pretty hard to compare the two much…. except that they use similar rolling stock, and in this case Phoenix does win. They are a bit fancier model.

        And then there’s attitude, it’s vastly different from here and there. I never though I would be shining a good light on Phoenix compared to here in anyway…. but, they are simply excited and appreciate the rail. It’s like a kid who grew up poor and is just grateful for all he gets, vs the spoiled kid who you can never satisfy. We are kinda the spoiled kid. I mean LINK is awesome…. but it clearly isn’t the end intention of ST, yet we bitch about it’s shortcomings like this is the end result and we got shafted. It’s a process and if we want to see it be successful we should be making sure it gets built as soon as possible so all the things we want come to be in a comprehensive system, but instead we just get cynical cause everyone hasn’t sold their car yet.

  9. “Sun Corridor”: Is that study done for real intercity passenger service or in preparation for the “Sun Corridor” megalopolis pipedream? It’s a desert, stupid! That place better shrinks itself voluntarily or it will go down like the Hohokam.

  10. Thanks for this post. No sarcasm here. I lived in Tucson for a while and while it isn’t my hometown, it still holds a special place in my heart. It’s easy to find news about transit for a city such as Seattle but I’ve found it harder to find news about these kinds of things concerning Arizona. It’s good to see the cities of Phoenix and Tucson going in that direction.

  11. The Tucson streetcar construction has killed several longtime businesses on 4th Avenue – admittedly some of my favorite ones.

    I don’t live in Tucson anymore, but my friends (transit riders all) who do said that the streetcar is an attempt to get people to go downtown instead of shopping on 4th Ave. I don’t know how much truth there is to that, though.

  12. METRO light rail has been a huge success and is approaching 50,000 average daily boardings. The Central Mesa and Gilbert Road extensions will be strong performers, as will Northwest Extension on 19th Avenue. These extensions will finally extend LRT to the limits of the former Red Line bus route, which was the precursor to the LRT starter line and the major trunk line in the Valley.

    While LRT has been a game changer, there are unfortunately poor decisions being made in terms of future corridor planning. Case in point being the Phoenix West project:

    This project is an absolute dud and will put LRT in the I-10 right-of-way instead of Thomas Road (which is the highest bus ridership corridor in the region). One can only hope that this extension falls flat in project development and the route is repackaged as a State Capitol-Downtown-South Central alternative.

    If I was METRO and the cities of Phoenix/Tempe/Mesa, I’d focus on building the 3 extensions (Central Mesa, Gilbert Road, NW Extension) as soon as possible, optimizing existing LRT operations (fix traffic signal delays, add real time passenger info, etc.), restore 10 minute peak/15 minute off-peak frequency, better coordinate bus/rail frequencies and hours of operation, and operate 3 car trains more freuqently. The result in my opinion: 100,000 daily boardings.

  13. Just like to point out that not all who live in Mesa are right wing short sighted refusnicks. An increasing number are out there taking the long term view and voting funds for improvements to the environment and transportation system. I am looking forward to the Metro Light Rail Gilbert extension, which I am pretty sure will happen, and help to get rid of the jerry built, run down, low rent, problem riddled housing south of the Main street corridor by making the land they occupy more attractive to low to medium rise development of modern apartments. With an improvement in the housing situation should come a revitalization of the commercial spaces that are vacant and vandalized, as a better paid clientele would have money to spend on decent food, clothing and household items. Not that I am above shopping in thrift stores myself, but we have too many of them, full of dubious trash that only someone in the most parlous of circumstances would consider placing in their home.
    I realize that by removing the low rent housing the problem inhabitants will move on elsewhere, taking their social issues with them, but (selfishly I admit) that’s not my problem.
    Not altruism but self interest is at work here, a much more sustainable momentum than fuzzy do-gooding, as the figures seem to show increased housing values within a mile of the light rail and a better retail business profile, (less pawnshops, bargain basement consignment stores with a ‘no questions asked as to item provenance’ ethic, shabby dollar stores, tattoo parlours, thrift stores, dive bars; more small niche businesses, decent fresh food shops, family oriented coffee shops and restaurants), in a pedestrian oriented environment.
    Downtown Mesa is much improved along these lines, although there’s still some way to go. I also have high hopes that the proposed Tucson Phoenix rail link would make Williams Gateway much more accessible and a real competitor to congested Sky Harbor.
    It’ll probably take years before we see all the proposals funded and acted on, but I think there has been a real change of attitude to urban planning around here.

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