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Phoenix light rail takes flight again

An example of downtown gutter-running with Kinkisharyo 123 and 103 in a two-car train at the Van Buren stop on Central Avenue in Downtown Phoenix. (Image credit: Vic Simons)

TAUT was present at the December 2008 opening of Valley Metro Rail. The initial 32km (20-mile) LRT starter line that connects three cities – Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa – opened with great fanfare, proudly proclaiming the beginning of a planned 106km (66-mile) high-capacity transit system. Then the reality of the global recession kicked in and these plans were curtailed, until 2015 when the first 5km (3.1-mile) extension opened taking the system further eastwards to downtown Mesa.

Now regrouped, and with a second extension having opened in 2016 taking riders further north-west in Phoenix, it is all systems go. Major projects are underway that will realise those initial dreams of a network; plans that include the addition of a low-floor modern streetcar in the city of Tempe that will connect to the regional light rail system.

A little background

Phoenix is the state capital and the largest city in Arizona, located in the south-west of the USA and bordering California, Nevada, Utah and New Mexico. The Mexican International boundary forms its southern edge. The state also touches Colorado in the north-east corner, the only point in the US where four states meet, known internationally as the Four Corners.

Phoenix is also the major metropolis in Maricopa County, which covers nearly 24 000km2 (9230 square miles), with a rapidly growing population that in 2015 reached nearly four million residents.

Valley Metro is responsible for co-ordination of regional transit services in the county and acts more like a British Passenger Transport Executive or German Verkehrsverbund rather than merely as an operator. Buses are owned generally by the cities in which they operate under a contract with Valley Metro, which also owns vehicles that operate in some smaller cities and in unincorporated areas of the County.

Valley Metro explained that there are 15 cities and towns, as well as Maricopa County itself, that are members of Valley Metro and purchase bus and paratransit services from the regional transit agency. Each of these jurisdictions have a seat on the Valley Metro Board. Also operating under this brand is Valley Metro Rail, a non-profit public corporation that receives policy direction from the five-member agency Board of Directors.

The city of Scottsdale (population 230 000, located around 20km/12 miles to the east of Phoenix), is one of the larger cities in Maricopa County and does not pay into Valley Metro Rail, and thus is not part of the plans to expand the light rail system, but is linked to other parts of the metropolitan region utilising the grid network of bus routes, including express bus, that travel from Phoenix, Tempe and other local cities.

The coming of light rail

The initial 2008 line started at 19th Avenue and Montebello in northern Phoenix, running south along Central Avenue before splitting in the city’s downtown area. Southbound it switches to 1st Avenue as far as Jefferson where it turns east before joining the north-western alignment on Washington near 11th Street. In the reverse direction, the alignment continues west on Washington to the downtown area where it turns north on the parallel Central Avenue before rejoining the reverse alignment near Portland Street. The system is double-track throughout and laid to standard gauge.

The route continues east along Washington to 44th Street where there is a Sky Train connection to allow convenient transfer to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Nearby, the 12 820m2 (138 000 ft2) Operations and Maintenance Center (OMC) is located on a 14ha. (35-acre) site on 48th Street and is reached by a double-track connection east of 51st Street.

The five-track facility employs around 200 operational and maintenance staff, and in April 2015 a new solar power installation saw the addition of 2800 solar voltaic panels spanning 0.5ha. (1.15 acres). The panels are mounted at both ground-level and on parking lot shade canopies, taking advantage of the city’s 360 days of annual sunshine to generate 1.3m kWh of energy, meeting 35% of the facility’s energy needs. This project was supported by a USD2.7m grant from the Federal Transit Investments for Greenhouse Gas & Energy Reduction (TIGGER) programme.

The alignment continues again along Washington to just short of the junction with Lakeview Drive where it becomes separate trackage turning south to cross the Salt River (known here as Tempe Town Lake) on a purpose-built bridge, before entering the city of Tempe where it turns east. There is a major Transit Center at the Veterans Way/College Avenue station where there are connections with Valley Metro, local and circulator bus services.

The route continues along Main Street to Sycamore Drive in the city of Mesa, which was the initial terminus. An 802-space park-and-ride and Transit Center is located immediately to the north of the station on Main Street. Apart from the section between East Lake Drive and Veterans Way, the alignment is entirely at street level, although there is almost total grade separation. There are numerous level crossings with signal priority for light rail. All of the trackway is paved, with access to tracks granted only to Valley Metro service vehicles.

Services operate 04.00-23.00 Monday to Thursday with the final trip ending its day at the OMC at 01.00. On Fridays and Saturdays there is a 20-minute frequency throughout the night after 19.00. Services start an hour later at weekends. Headways are every 12 minutes Monday to Friday; every 15 minutes on Saturday and every 20 minutes on Sundays and holidays. Many bus routes naturally act as light rail feeders based on the arterial grid system of streets throughout the region; this extensive network now offers comprehensive transit coverage.

Stations are generally island platforms in the centre of the street, but in the core area there is gutter-running on 1st and Central Avenues with sidewalk-located stations. All stations have ticket vending machines, timetables and sheltered seating with a next train digital display and public address announcements. The station platforms
are 85m to accommodate trains of three coupled LRVs.

As of February 2017, a single ride cost USD2 with an All-Day pass costing USD4; these fares are valid for travel on both light rail and bus. Premium fares are charged on express buses and reduced fares are available for students, seniors and people with disabilities. The honour system, subject to regular checks, is used on the light rail line, while all passes are checked upon boarding a bus where a rider must pay an exact fare – transfers are not issued because the All-Day pass is valid to travel between bus and rail and acts as a transfer. Valley Metro estimates that fare evasion is around 6% on light rail, with approximately 20% of passengers randomly checked.

The road to expansion

Two extensions have opened since the starter line began operations eight years ago. The first was inaugurated in August 2015, seven months ahead of schedule, with the addition of 5km (3.1 miles) along Main Street in Mesa from Sycamore to Mesa Drive. This added four new stations: Alma School, Country Club, Center and Mesa Drive, which is the current terminus. At this point there is a long turnback and tail track extending to Ashland, where a spare car is kept as back-up if needed during the service day.

This extension cost USD199m, of which 38% came from a USD75m Federal Small Starts grant, 36% (USD71.2m) regional funds and 27% (USD53m) from Federal air quality grants. A 445-space park-and-ride is located at the north-east corner of Mesa Drive and Main Street. With this new facility, there is less demand on the park-and-ride at Sycamore and Main Street, providing an opportunity to redevelop its use.

The addition of a second 5.15km (3.2-mile) extension in less than nine months allows riders to travel further north along 19th Avenue from Montebello to Dunlap Avenue. There are three new stations located at Glendale, Northern and Dunlap, where there is a park-and-ride with an art plaza anchoring the northwest portion of the line.

The USD327m cost of this extenson was met 56% by regional funds and 44% from a local Phoenix contribution. Somewhat higher than the Mesa extension of similar length, this is due largely to the need to widen 19th Avenue, along with extensive underground work that required replacement and installation of more than 15km (nine miles) of new utilities. Known as Northwest Extension Phase I, it is the initial segment that will eventually expand service to the Metrocenter Mall west of I-17.

A fleet of 50 Kinkisharyo light rail vehicles was ordered for the 2008 opening, which were assembled locally following the shipping of bodyshells from Japan and thus complying with the 60% Buy America legislation. The 70% low-floor, double-ended, three-section vehicles are 27.7m long and 2.65m wide, and are similar in engineering terms to those in Seattle and San Jose, but with rather different front ends. The six-axle vehicles usually operate in pairs but trains are often expanded to three cars in the peak or for special events. Heavy-duty HVAC systems with four power modules (one for reserve) were incorporated to cope with the extreme summer conditions, where temperatures often exceed 42°C (110°F).

In January 2016, Valley Metro launched a ‘Multi-Year Light Rail Vehicle Acquisition Program’ that specified a base order for 11 new LRVs with options for up to 58 more over a seven-year period. New vehicles will be required as the system expands.

In addition to a new infill station at 50th Street and Washington scheduled to open in 2019, there are five major expansion projects in the advanced planning stage that are planned to open by 2023. This is an accelerated construction process largely made possible by Transportation 2050 (T2050), a multi-modal transportation plan approved by Phoenix voters in August 2015. Funding for T2050 is generated by a 0.7% sales tax which went into effect on 1 January 2016; the measure will be largely dedicated to expanding and improving transit, streets and bike/pedestrian facilities in Phoenix.

Over the life of the 35-year plan revenues from the sales tax are estimated to generate around USD16.7bn, or almost half of the plan’s overall cost. An additional USD14.8bn is projected to be generated from Federal and County funds, passenger fares and other sources. Combined, this is expected to raise USD31.5bn in total over the next 35 years.

The 3km (1.9-mile) Gilbert Road Extension, expected to open in 2019, will extend light rail further east on Main Street to a new park-and-ride facility and Transit Center at Gilbert Road with one additional intermediate station. Unique for a US LRT system, there will be a roundabout on the route which the light rail will cross at grade through its centre. The USD153m cost is being supplied by both local and Federal dollars.

Coming of the Streetcar

In 2020 an all-new mode for Valley Metro will be introduced with the arrival of the Tempe Streetcar. This is a USD186m project of which USD75m is planned to come from the Federal Small Starts programme. A contract has been approved with Stacy and Witbeck for construction but cannot be signed and implemented until FTA approval is received, which Valley Metro is expecting imminently (as at February 2017).

The 4.8km (three-mile) route will start at an interchange with the existing light rail service at Dorsey Lane. From there it will run west along Apache Boulevard to Mill Avenue where it will turn north to a point just short of Tempe Town Lake. Here it will turn east to a terminus at the major Marina Heights development that includes both office and retail space over an 8ha. (20-acre) site. The route includes a downtown loop on Mill and Ash Avenues and 14 stops. Each stop will include public art to capture the essence of each neighbourhood along the streetcar route.

New low-floor vehicles will be used for the service due to the density and compactness of the areas in and around downtown Tempe. The streetcars will be stored and maintained at the existing OMC, utilising light rail tracks at the beginning and end of each day to travel from downtown Tempe. Part of the system will operate utilising off-wire or battery capability, primarily along Mill Avenue and from Ash Avenue at 9th Street to Rio Salado/Hayden Ferry, which complements the streetscape and environment. Valley Metro has stated that these vehicles will be different from its existing light rail vehicles, being more akin to the streetcars seen in Dallas and Detroit.

The other three light rail projects are all planned to be in service in 2023. The South Central extension, having accelerated from the orignal planned opening in 2034, is now a very fast-moving project. Its exact cost is not yet known, although it is expected to be funded by T2050. The route is an approximately 8km (five-mile) continuation south on Central Avenue to its junction with Baseline Road, with seven stations.

Valley Metro commented that “the City of Phoenix has been identified as one of seven cities, and the only city west of Baton Rouge, (Louisiana) chosen to participate in the Ladders Transportation Empowerment Pilot (LadderSTEP). This distinct identification has been critical for the South Central project acceleration and will offer opportunities to connect, revitalise and create jobs for the South Central area of Phoenix. Last autumn the city was awarded a USD2m Transportation Planning Excellence Awards (TPEA) grant from the FTA. These funds will be used to initiate an early action business assistance program for our local and small businesses in the community.”

Secondly, the Northwest Phase II Extension will extend light rail from Dunlap Avenue north and west across I-17 to a new Transit Center in the Metrocenter Mall area where Valley Metro is planning a transit hub. This 2.4km (1.5-mile) route will have two stations although as it is still in the Environmental Assessment stage no project costs are available. It will be partially funded by T2050.

Another project for completion by 2023 is the first phase of the Capitol/I-10 West Extension, which will connect Valley Metro Rail to the State Capitol area with three proposed stations. Again, the project is at the Environmental Assessment stage with no final cost confirmed. The longer-term plan is to extend service an additional 16km (ten miles) west utilising the I-10 freeway alignment, either in the median or at the northern edge, to 79th Avenue where a Transit Center and park-and-ride are planned. This is a long-planned project aimed at supporting travel demand in the I-10 corridor.

Planning is also underway to connect northeast Phoenix and downtown Glendale to Valley Metro Rail.

View from the top

When TAUT met Scott W Smith, former Mayor of Mesa and now Valley Metro CEO, he was asked what obstacles he faced moving from politician to the leader of a transit agency. Smith, an advocate for the initial light rail line that opened in December 2008, openly admits that he found the transition challenging, but with both political goodwill and full support from within Valley Metro he has settled into the role and it is working well. His political background allows him ample experience as he works with two Boards of Directors who set policy and guide the agency.

Smith stated that with 16m light rail riders (out of a 67m total) in 2016, light rail is very much a part of the fabric of the community and a necessity for many of its users. Transit carries around 15% of commuters in peak times, somewhat higher than the US average of less than 10%. He cited transformational examples of senior citizens who did not wish to drive at night but who are now happy to use transit and who feel that it gives them more freedom of choice in that they are not tied to their cars. According to economic development data, light rail has significantly contributed to the USD8.9bn public and private investment along the system.

Perhaps surprisingly, Smith sees transportation network companies such as Uber or Lyft as important partners for the agency, particularly when considering the “first and last mile element in journeys”. Despite this he does accept that whilst it may enhance rail usage – indeed promotional partnerships have been run around special events – it could lead to new opportunities to support connections to bus services. He is also excited by the various rail developments, although there were added factors in the construction of the Gilbert Road extension moving the date beyond its original start-up. He felt the causes, mainly unplanned utility relocation issues, are now being managed and incorporated into the new schedule.

The recent approval of the T2050 sales tax creates amazing transit opportunities, he added, highlighting the importance that all of the communities represented by Valley Metro see the tangible benefits. There are six studies covering provision of additional services in the cities of Phoenix, Glendale, Peoria, Chandler, Mesa and Gilbert; these options include high-capacity transit.

When asked about future light rail vehicle procurements, clearly necessary with such ambitious expansion, Smith explained that they work with agency partners to determine the best option for the region.

Metropolitan Phoenix is clearly delivering what it has promised in terms of environmentally-friendly and socially-inclusive transit options. The latest extensions enhance the opportunities for many more residents and businesses and significantly improve the quality of the service provided. The higher than expected ridership reflects the success of light rail.

The flat fare for a system covering such a large geographic area adds to the attractiveness, with simplicity being a virtue.

 Grateful thanks to Scott Smith, Susan Tierney and Corinne Holliday of Valley Metro for their assistance in the preparation of this article.

Feature originally appeared in TAUT April 2017 (952).