Phoenix light rail approaches ninth birthday with extensions coming soon

Phoenix’s light rail system provides passengers with over 1 million rides per month, according to statistics from Valley Metro. (Paul Slobodzian/DD)

With recent City Council approval for expansions and improvements, the Phoenix light rail system shows no signs of slowing down soon, almost nine years after it opened.

First unveiled in December 2008, the rail system provides passengers with over 1 million rides per month, according to statistics from Valley Metro, the light rail’s operator. The system opened with 20 miles of track stretching from Phoenix to the intersection of Sycamore and Main Street in Mesa.

Construction of that original 20-mile line cost $1.4 billion, funded by both federal and local sources.

Since then, the light rail system has expanded to 26 miles, with just over 3 more miles of track added to expand west into Mesa and just over 3 miles of track added to extend the line into northwest Phoenix, stretching to 19th and Dunlap Avenues. According to documents from Valley Metro, these two extensions brought an estimated 10,000 additional light rail riders per day.

The light rail provides affordable transportation for the citizens of Phoenix, especially those who cannot afford a car, at a cost of $2 per ride or $4 for an all-day class. Other options include weekly and monthly passes, and discounted rates.

According to fact sheets from Valley Metro, the Mesa extension cost $199 million and the Phoenix extension cost over $313 million.

Currently, there are plans for construction to turn part of the downtown Phoenix section of the light rail into a central light rail hub.

Last month, Phoenix City Council approved plans for changes to the light rail stations and tracks. The plan will add track along Washington Street between First and Central Avenues. Currently, there are no tracks between the two streets along Washington, although there are tracks running east and west from First Avenue and east from Central Avenue.

New stations will accompany the new track around CityScape. Albert Santana, the director of high-capacity transit for Phoenix, said the stations will be for the light rail’s different planned lines and will be within a block of each other. He said the idea is to allow an easy transfer for passengers transferring train lines.

“Unlike other major metropolitan areas, we [Phoenix] don’t have a natural union station or a major area where all trains can come in,” Santana said.

The proposed locations for the stations at the intersection of the light rail lines is between First and Central Avenues and Washington and Jefferson Streets. The new plan will enable riders transferring to the new C westbound-line to the State Capitol to do so easier, as the stations were originally blocks apart

There are also plans for a line called the South Central Extension, which will extend five miles south of downtown Phoenix to Baseline Road. This expansion is scheduled for completion in 2023.

Much of the funding for the expansions comes from the Transportation 2050 initiative. Funding was given when Proposition 104, a ballot initiative to raise taxes, passed in 2015.

District 8 Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Kate Gallego of Phoenix said she thinks the light rail expansion will help her district, which encompasses parts of downtown and south Phoenix.

“We have a lot creative tech companies in the area. Their workforce wants transportation options. They want to be able to bike to work, to be able to take light rail to work,” Gallego said.

Gallego said many of her constituents lack cars. She said the light rail will give those people access to high-quality education, more job options, and more amenities that were previously not as reachable.

Gallego said she was also pleased with the plan to create a central transit hub of light rail stations downtown.

“We’re going from a light rail line to a light rail system. Creating a hub is really important to the growth of light rail in the Phoenix area,” she said.

In addition to the extension added last year at 19th and Dunlap Avenues, there are plans to extend the track an additional one-and-a-half miles to the northwest near Metrocenter Mall.

According to Valley Metro documents, the extension will run west down Dunlap Avenue, make a turn to the north at 25th Avenue, then run west along Mountain View Road to Metrocenter. Currently, the route has a planned opening year of 2023 and will cost an estimated $295,400,000.

Valley Metro estimates the extension will provide a transportation option for almost 10,000 residential units and provide a commuting option for up to 20,000 employees.

Even with all the expansions happening and transit options that the light rail provides, not everyone likes the direction the light rail system is heading in.

Roy Miller, a resident of Phoenix’s City Council District 4 and a member of the Citizens Transportation Commission (CTC), a subcommittee formed to ensure effective implementation of Transportation 2050. Miller said during a CTC meeting he believed expanding the light rail is a waste of money, because of the new technology of driverless cars. He said the money would be better spent creating infrastructure to accommodate the driverless vehicles.

Light rail rider Nayeli Moreno said she does not think the light rail should cost money for individual riders because the public already pays taxes to fund the system.

“If you think about it, there are people who are homeless, and where are they going to get the money to pay for that fare?” Moreno said.

She also said she doesn’t think the citations handed out to people who don’t pay are effective because if someone can’t afford a $4 light rail fare, then they won’t be able to afford the citations handed out to repeat offenders who don’t pay their fares. Those citations range in cost from $50 to $400, depending on how many times the repeat offender has been caught without paying the fare.

To address the light rail’s problems, Valley Metro has implemented a new code of conduct called “Respect the Ride.” This new code of conduct is designed to improve light rail passengers’ behavior, making the experience more peaceful for riders.

Susan Tierney, Communications Manager at Valley Metro, said Valley Metro believes that “Respect the Ride” is important for all riders of the light rail.

Tierney also hinted at improvements Valley Metro is considering in the future: Wi-Fi on the light rail trains and the ability to buy light rail passes on a smartphone.

She also expressed her appreciation for people in the Phoenix area’s support for the light rail.

“We appreciate that those people who rely on the system continue to ride. We do feel like it provides an important public service,” she said.

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