Tag Archives: I-11

Phoenix Commuter Rail: The Beginning of A Plan

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:


Phase 1
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.

Phase 2

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.

Phase 3

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.


1. https://www.azmag.gov/Projects/Project.asp?CMSID=1076

2. https://www.azdot.gov/planning/CurrentStudies/PassengerRail

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


The Proposed Interstate -11: Phoenix and the Amalgamation.

Key points. 

-Opposition to the sprawl inducing Hassayampa freeway alignment.

-Support for an alignment that realizes Phoenix’s primacy, stimulating infill and density over sprawl.

-Key requirement being the co-development of regional rail and improvements for future commuter rail.

-In this case, Phoenix’s regional primacy needs to be asserted to insist on smarter growth. 

I grew up at 88th Avenue and Pinnacle Peak, this is when 83rd Avenue was a two lane road and citrus trees lined both sides. Most of the land around our house was still desert, and so the desert was kind of my backyard. Seeing suburban sprawl overtake most of places I spent my childhood is part of why I am now such an ardent urbanist. This background makes me believe that if the I-11 project comes to fruition, it should be part of a larger ‘smart growth’ strategy, and I feel the current proposal is deficient in that regard. 


The Arizona Department of Transportation and Nevada Department of Transportation are working together on the Interstate 11 (I-11) and Intermountain West Corridor Study that includes detailed corridor planning of a possible high-priority Interstate link between Phoenix, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada (I-11), as well as high-level visioning for potentially extending the Corridor north to Canada and south to Mexico (the Intermountain West Corridor). The Corridor is proposed to include an upgraded highway facility, but it could be paired with rail and other major infrastructure components—such as energy and telecommunications—to serve the nation’s needs from Mexico to Canada.

The study finds that the I-11 and Intermountain West Corridor is indeed justified and that the Corridor is needed for the following key reasons:

  •  Transportation is a key enabler of economic development. 

  •  There is currently a lack of sufficient north-south capacity for existing goods movement or any increase in economic activity in Arizona and Nevada. 

  •  The effective integration of the economies of the Southwest Triangle mega region (Southern California, Sun Corridor, and Las Vegas) will require continuing investment in transportation capacity over the planning horizon of the study. This mega region, and particularly the cities of Phoenix and Las Vegas, are poorly served by surface transportation when compared to other U.S. cities of comparable size and proximity, and the areas lacks sufficient connectivity to the rest of the Intermountain West.             (I-11 AND INTERMOUNTAIN WEST CORRIDOR STUDY- Draft 7-2-13)

First let me be clear what parts of the current proposal I agree with. 

  1. The need for faster and easer passenger and commercial transport between Nogales, Tucson, Phoenix and Las Vegas. Especially as Arizona tries to compete with Texas and California for cross border trade. 
  2. The minimal changes to US-95 between Las Vegas and Wickenburg required to upgrade the designation.
  3. Infrastructure for freight and passenger rail between the two cities.
  4. Tying the new Interstate into any of the current or future state highways that are part of the regional plan. I may not completely agree with the current plan but that is another post entirely.

I am completely against the following part of the proposal.

  1. The Hassayampa freeway. This is the section slated to run completely around Phoenix and tie into I-10 around Casa Grande. (I am taking to calling this Loop 909)
  2. Any proposal that is not in conjunction with regional, Intercity rail lines (Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas) and future right of way use for commuter rail. 

                                       ImageMap #1


The Hassayampa freeway (see map #1) runs from Wickenburg down to I-10 then loops around to run parallel with I-8 separated by very few miles in some sections. One of the big supposed selling points of I-11 is that Phoenix and Las Vegas are the only million plus population cities not connected by interstate. I hate to be the one to point out that the current proposal never gets closer to Phoenix than Buckeye. (40 miles from Downtown) 

This loop around is all about one thing. Providing access for building large master planed communities between the White tanks and Hassayampa River. The entire section from Wickenburg to I-10 is incorporated into the City of Buckeye, and is being published as a possible PPP (private public partnership) highway between the developers and ADOT. It is being sold as a way to bypass Phoenix congestion and reduce pollution, just as as 101,202, and 303 were before. Currently 100 communities have been approved for this corridor, which of course will only add to the congestion and pollution. This has to be viewed as an attempt to add one more ring of sprawl to the Phoenix metro landscape, all to benefit leap frog developers.

I believe what would be best for Phoenix is to instead continue the Southeast alignment down US 60/Grand Ave to I-17. I’m sure many will disagree but let me briefly explain why and how. 


The expected growth of the Phoenix region from 4.2 million to 8 million requires a massive re-working of the current development model. Most of the regional plans are in expectation of the 4 million new residents to add to the circumference of the city, building 4th and 5th generation suburban rings. However, given current demographic shifts, and the unsustainable nature of such expansive sprawl, we should be planning for a different scenario. We have to expect, plan, and provide tools for up to 50% of the population growth to take place on city infill lots and through increased urban core densification. The current regional transportation plan does not address this adequately. 

Part of the I-11 proposal is the mention of a high speed rail corridor between Phoenix and Las Vegas. I highly doubt any plans for passenger rail service between the two cities would not follow the current rail alignment down US 60 into Downtown Phoenix thus requiring possible signal and grade separation through the traditional and historic urban cores that sit along the highway.Grand Avenue (US-60) is still a hodgepodge of partial flyovers, train crossings, worthless intersections, and historic access roads, reminding me of the urban patched highways of Bombay more than anywhere else I’ve ever been. It is a massive problem and an amazing asset for anyone wanting to see Phoenix build with density and in-fill rather than sprawl and jump development. 


(see map #2)

Continuing a major interstate through historic Wickenburg without destroying or economically isolating the city is a problem. A bypass may not be the answer, but neither is a direct shot through the town.Upgrading the junction at SR-74 which is already now part of the projected regional system gives the first access to North Phoenix and Cave Creek. A full interchange at the 303 loop provides additional eastward access and allows connection to I-10 west. 303 is already slighted to continue south from I-10 to the 808 and then tie into SR-85 and serve as access to I-8 east and west. I will call this ‘Phoenix bypass #3’.

From 303 to 101 there are limited crossings and a standard urban freeway template could be used. The tracks on the western side of the roadway do create extra hight requirements and complicated on/off ramp issues but nothing that hasn’t been done before. The connection to 101 provides further east/west and north/south connections including access to the future south mountain loop 202, ‘Phoenix bypass #2’.

From this point things get complicated, but again non of these problems are new or unprecedented. Peoria has already planed to lower and deck portions of US-60 in-order to re-unify its downtown. I would assume this would happen in Glendale maybe Surprise and possibly at other strategic locations in Phoenix (think Big dig I-93 but before things get too congested). All of this would finally end at I-17 providing I-11 actual access to Phoenix and of course the original ‘downtown bypass #1’, I-17 south. 

US-60/ Grand Avenue from I-17 to VanBuren than should be given historic status as the City’s western gateway, building on the work already being done. With dedicated passenger rail lines now along this key corridor commuter rail is all the more possible stoping at the historic town sites and key locations between Wickenburg and Phoenix downtown. With both additional interstate connectivity and rail options infill and denser development will be constructed along this route as opposed to adding to sprawl between the White Tank Mountains and the Hassayampa River bed. 

Yes, this will be more expensive. Yes, this would be a complicated project, but anyone who doesn’t foresee it having to happen in the next 40 years anyway is making a huge mis-judgment on the future development of the region, and the demographic changes occurring nation wide. The I-11 designation would just add the possibility of federal funds to a project that will help the Phoenix region develop and grow smart instead of irresponsibly. 

The City of Phoenix (with the help of all Grand Avenue cities) needs to use all of it’s leverage with ADOT, and MAG to mandate that any Phoenix to Las Vegas transportation corridor benefits in-fill growth and smart development. While Phoenix has very little leverage over the other local municipalities. It does have de facto political power because of its primacy. The project is being sold on the claim that it connects the two big metropolitan cities. Phoenix needs to make clear that the current proposal falls short of that claim and thus diminishes the possible economic impact of the project. The mere threat of losing any Federal support should be enough to make most State and regional officials contemplate modifying the plan.


Map #2

ImageMap #3

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.