With the Talk Transportation community engagement in full swing I figured it is time to dedicate a full post to Commuter Rail and its importance to Downtown.
Why Commuter Rail is important to Downtown Phoenix:
Downtown Phoenix gets over 85 thousand daily commuters, plus thousands more for sports, concerts, and entertainment events. These individuals all add vibrancy to the core, but their cars limit us from obtaining a walk-able / bike-able urban environment. Downtown Phoenix will always be a commuter destination, and if it is to continue as the hub of commerce, knowledge, and entertainment then we need to add capacity at the same time we are trying to pedestrianize our streets. Light rail is helping to refocus our growth patterns along its route, and new developments will help create options for people who want to live/work in downtown, but this is not enough.
Great cities serve as hubs for transportation networks. Phoenix and Downtown in particular needs to reassert its self as the epicenter of the regions transportation infrastructure network. Phoenix has to do this because the knowledge based economy is dependent upon bringing qualified people together, and for downtown businesses, it is imperative that their employees can get to and from work seamlessly. Therefore, if we are truly looking at ways to reduce our freeway congestion, grow downtown businesses, and create a comfortable safe pedestrian space, than commuter rail is the only high capacity option.
A reasonable plan:
I know many people who agree with the thoughts above, unfortunately the two organizations who should take the lead on commuter rail, ADOT and Valley Metro seem too entrenched in there respective methods ( Highway building and Bus/Light-rail) to look at the third alternative. MAG (Maricopa Association of Governments) has been more forward leaning on the topic conducting the 2010 study that helps to form the base for the suggestions below, but MAG has no way to implement projects.1 ADOT however, is studying Phoenix to Tucson intercity rail options, one of which (the Yellow option) corresponds with Phase 1 of my basic proposal. They are also studying high speed passenger service to California and Nevada as part of the general state rail plan which corresponds with Phase 2 & 3. 2
What is envisioned below is a three layered passenger transportation network, Maricopa Commuter Rail, Inter-city regional rail, and an Inter-Airport transfer service all built upon the current heavy rail freight infrastructure. Because all of these can operate on the same improved track and because the current rail system sits where these connections need to be, the improvement costs are lower and the capacity is higher than many other transportation options. This also creates a shared maintenance and operations burden between multiple stakeholders.
How to start:
MAG’s proposed Southeast alignment runs directly from Downtown past Gateway Airport. Currently Transfers between airports requires a private shuttle van service at around $25. Connecting these airports by train allows Gateway airport and its budget regional airlines to effectively link into the national/international hub and spoke system. This allows Sky Harbor to focus more of its facilities on the economically vital national and international carriers while Gateway grows for budget service and East valley commuter flights. Reliable, baggage friendly, scheduled service is key to making transfers between airports work. While Gateway is currently struggling, it is still geographically positioned to serve as Sky Harbors relief airport over the next 30 years and so it is critical that we plan that infrastructure connection now. While Airport to Airport train service typically only takes place in Tier 1 cities like London and Shanghai, Sky Harbor’s proximity to downtown and the strategic placement of Gateway, Goodyear and Tucson airports if joined effectively could create a robust transportation network for the region.
MAG’s 2010 estimate for the track improvements needed on this Southeast section was $477 Million. This number also includes building 10 stations, which is not necessary because Commuter Rail stations can typically be privately funded or worked into a PPP (Private Public Partnership) thus reducing cost. Nonetheless, globally many large transportation projects actively seek voluntary investments or connection fees from major Airports, Stadium Districts, and Retail complexes, so a capital investment from the airport and other organizations should be expected in any future commuter rail plan, with the goal to provide a sufficient amount to help fund this first section. 3
ADOT’s focus then can be on the Gateway to Tucson corridor and maintenance assistance for the commuter section. The key is that Airport transfers and inter-city trips are not expected to be subsidized rates like normal public transport. A $20-25 fee is potentially very close to covering the maintenance and operational needs for Airport transfers on this line and a trip to Tucson would then be a bit higher.
A proposal by the Airport and Phoenix to investigate the feasibility of such a project, and the initial prospect of some capital would likely be enough to politically bring Tempe, Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert into a realistic conversation about adding commuter rail along the same route. ADOT would then be able to latch on, selecting to extend this corridor to Tucson. The further hope being that Valley Metro joins as the transportation organizer with a proven commuter rail operator (maybe BNSF) in charge of operations and day to day logistics.
Why The South East line First.
The passenger estimate for this route from Queen Creek to Downtown is 6450 boardings a day and MAG’s operation and maintenance estimate was $9 per boarding. There are many flaws to these boarding numbers given that tourists, special events, and potential transfers between airports, light rail, and other lines will add to the counts. Plus none of this takes into account generational or development shifts all likely to favor more passengers. Taking that the Rapid bus service currently costs $6.50 per round trip a $2-2.50 subsidy is reasonable and the $9 is well below the national commuter rail average of $11. Figuring in the unaccounted boardings I listed above, possible profit sharing with station retail/airport transfers, and the reduced maintenance cost due to private stations, very little Federal or local tax assistance may be necessary for this starter section.
For some practical, political, and financial reasons this Southeast commuter line should terminate at the State Capitol with a new private development station. There should be very little added cost for this extra two miles but the increased ridership and political statement is important. Historic Union station can be brought back to serve as both a commuter rail stop for the downtown government district and future regional intercity passenger rail hub incorporating commercial space. Also, a mixed use development/station somewhere between 4th & 7th Streets, possibly incorporated into the ballpark, would serve the sports and business district.
PHX-TUC Airport Connector.
A typical PHX-TUC train would depart from Union station, stop at Sky Harbor to pick up plane transfers and more Tucson passengers. This train would then be a direct to Gateway, making the airport connection and bringing on board more intercity passengers. A stop in Eloy could potentially serve Casa Grande before Downtown Tucson and then Tucson Airport. The ‘local’ commuter line and freight lines can then run on the improved tracks behind this service.
The next phase should be the Yuma line (Airport to Buckeye). Once again there are benefits to the Airport due to a possible connection with Goodyear Airport. While it is not used for passenger service at this time it has the potential as a west valley provider in the next 30 years. However, the major use I see for Goodyear Airport is in freight and cargo. It has one of the longest runways in the southwest, currently sits in the growing west valley warehouse transfer area and is close to the potential I-11 corridor (not that I like it). It is an asset with huge economic and employment potential and connecting it into the transportation network is essential to regional economic growth.
The Yuma line also runs less than 2 miles south of the proposed I-10 light rail extension. If a solid alternative was presented there may be political room to stop the I-10 extension boondoggle. I am a huge light rail supporter but building light rail ( a system designed for street activation) down the middle of an interstate for commuter traffic is a disastrous mistake for the system. Especially when we have heavy rail tracks so close. If $400 million of the $1.1 billion dollars slated for the I-10 west extension was used to create a commuter rail option; which is MAG’s estimate for this section, the other $700 million could go to the South Central light rail extension which is a far more suited light rail line (this also keeps the money in the same district). The Yuma line would also effectively replace the I-10 rapid bus service so while MAG shows this as a low boarding route it is the cheapest to build and has future potential.
The East terminus for this line should be Sky Harbor which will also help with boardings and create a future direct airport transfer to Goodyear. This would require sidings and double tracks through downtown (and I hope a 50 year plan to bring the downtown section below grade). This is the only way I can see preventing a terrible mistake with light rail, and building a solid transportation network.
The flaw with MAG’s projection for this segment is in extending the line past Goodyear airport. The far west valley boardings are not sufficient enough to justify the maintenance and operations costs at this time. It is obvious that the study was trying to include all possible MAG members in the proposal, but any real project would have to be far more reasonable about costs/boardings.
One of MAG’s suggestions is for BNSF to be the system operator. If this was implemented then Phase 3 should be The Grand Ave commuter rail service. This line has the second greatest passenger potential and the tracks are BNSF owned. Unfortunately it is also the most expensive to implement, but between BNSF, Phoenix, Glendale, Peoria, Surprise, and the possibility of Federal support for a Las Vegas to Phoenix intercity line, adding this portion into an already operating commuter rail system becomes more feasible. Many of these NorthWest cities already understand the economic growth potential of commuter rail and have been pushing for leadership and movement on the issue. (see compass study) 4
What does it mean for Downtown?
MAG estimates 11290 boardings per day for these three lines. While I think this is a low estimate, and not all of these individuals will disembark in downtown this potentially captures 1 in 8 downtown commuters and could change the way we plan our urban environment. This also allows companies to feel comfortable locating offices and developments within our core because the parking and commute time become diminished obstacles and collaborative knowledge clusters become the draw. This will then allow us to look at our downtown streets more holistically. It is hard to have a political fight between the downtown community wanting slower pedestrianized streets, and commuters who have very few options in trying to get to work every day. There has to be a viable high capacity transit option for downtown commuters or unfortunately our city center will likely continue to be automobile dominated because of the political demands of suburbanites.
3. For examples see. Peterson George, Unlocking Land Values to Finance Urban Infrastructure (Washington D.C. : The World Bank 2009)
Jeffery is a native Phoenix area resident and lives in the Downtown Evans Churchill neighborhood. He has a Masters in Globalization and Development from The University of Sussex – Institute of Development Studies and a Political Science B.A. From A.S.U. He currently works as a Project Manager for a Phoenix based small business. All opinions are strictly his own. All rights on written and creative ideas are reserved