Tag Archives: Light rail

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:

Map

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-Map

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.

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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.

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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)

4.http://www.azcentral.com/community/peoria/articles/20131226grand-avenue-trains-west-valley-revitalization.html

 

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

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Comments on the Transit Center Proposal

I was glad to see the preliminary design for the Transit Center proposal released a few weeks ago. Given some of the comments that I’ve seen expressed, and my previous posts about this particular RFP I have decided to make a few early points. There is a lot of information I don’t know about the development constraints and the motives behind the developers decisions. Therefore, I am basing all of my comments below on the information that  has been made public.

First let me express the things I like about the proposal.

  1. A dense residential high-rise in the Central Business District.
  2. $800 studio rentals; of course we don’t know the unit size but they are likely 450-500 Sqft. Given the $82 million development budget this is the low end of what the building needs entry units to perform at, and is competitive with other Downtown rentals.
  3. At 390’ tall this would be the 4th tallest building in the State, and take over 44 Monroe for tallest residential. I think it is good to see some competition amongst developers.

Second, I have concerns with the following items but don’t see it worth holding the project up over.

  1. The building will shade the park in winter. I did two quick models to show what the current proposal would look like on December 31st (See Below). I also looked at moving the building South to Van Buren to show full sun on the main lawn. I am making the assumption that a North/South alignment is out of the question for the developer because of view sheds and direct East/West sun into the units. (Yes, there is a reason many of our buildings are oriented this way.)
  2. I would like to see Polk made back into a through street, at minimum a one way, or at least continue its use for some bus functions.
  3. The bus stops seem to be haphazardly moved in front of the historic Security Building across Van Buren. At best this appears to be an after thought, and at worst a perceived desire to disperse bus riders from the development site.
  4. I have no problem with a public dog park in the location shown, but a building exclusive dog park along Central Ave is not appropriate. This distinction is unclear from the site plan.

Finally, there is the item that concerns me most. The proposal needs to meet the Urban Form Code, and the current design appears to fall short. All references are from The Downtown Code-Chapter 12

  1. The maximum setback on Van Buren is 5 feet. A conservative measurement puts the building at 10 feet. Given the narrow sidewalks at this location this may be a variance worth pursuing.
  2. On Van Buren the building must front 75% of the lot. The site plan does not reflect adequate building frontage along Van Buren.
  3. The maximum setback on Central Ave and 1st Ave is 10 feet. The site plan reflects approximately 40 foot setbacks along each of these major urban streets. Due to these deep setbacks it is hard to argue that the building has any frontage along these streets, let alone the required 75%.
  4. The building does not enhance the major pedestrian corners as it is required to. These are two prime corners that would not be activated.                                                                                                        Enhanced Corner Guidelines. The uses that generate the highest pedestrian traffic should be located on enhanced corners and provide the following: +2

1.A primary entrance that faces both streets and serves the greatest number of occupants. 

2.Additional building articulation that emphasizes the corner and promotes activity. *2 

3.Active uses identified on the Land Use Matrix (Section 1204.D) should occupy the ground floor level. +2

5.   The tower should have a distinctive base. Base guidelines. 

a.All buildings over four stories in height should be designed with a base that is differen-tiated from the remainder of the building in order to relate to the street. The base may be between one and four stories in height, and should be scaled to the immediate context. 

b.The base of a building(s) should be placed parallel, and not at an angle, to the street. 

c.Building form guidelines. 

.(1)  Above 65 feet, tall buildings should not have massing that is boxy, bulky, and elon- gated. 

.(2)  Upper floors should be served by common entrance lobbies that shall be accessed from the Front or Pedestrian Street. 

.(3)  Large floor plates should be articulated to break down the mass of the building, cre- ate “street interest” and enhance skyline character. 

.(4)  Building towers should have a minimum separation of 20 feet. 

.(5)  The reflectivity of windows should be limited to 20 percent. 

.(6)  The uppermost floors of high-rise buildings should be articulated to achieve a dis-tinctive skyline profile. 

 In my opinion, all of these problems stem from the fact that this size of development is not appropriate for an entire city block. Below are some possible fixes.

  1. The tower should shift over from the middle of the property to either directly onto 1st or Central. Especially if it is kept on the Polk side, so that the building has some public street frontage.
  2. The development should only take half a block. Either focusing on the Van Buren side or the Polk side of the lot.
  3. The parking garage would need to possibly go up 2 more stories or underground 2 stories to keep approximate square footage and include street level activation. It is unclear how tall the current proposed parking structure is.
  4. The remainder of the block could be left in tact for continued transit functions or future development projects.

As the DPJ article states, the city is in negotiations with the developer. I hope that some of these issues are being addressed during that process. Below are some possible site massing, and the winter shade analysis pictures.

– Current Site plan 12:30pm December 31st Shade Shade2   – Rotated Site plan 12:30pm December 31st Shade Shade1 Suggestion #1 Van Buren focus Mass1   Suggestion #2 Polk focus Mass2

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 Phoenix Downtown Comprehensive Transportation Study: perspectives from Columbia and Peru.

After seeing the preliminary plans for Downtown transportation changes, and given my recent trip to Columbia and Peru I decided to highlight a few examples from Bogota and Lima as a perspective. Plus with all the great things happening in Downtown this month, I needed a lazy blog topic….

Closing Central:
As I mentioned in the Transit Center posts from last year, the South and Western extensions to Light Rail will require major changes to how cars and people will get around downtown. The preliminary 10 year plan now seems to limit traffic on Central Ave from Jefferson to Van Buren. For many reasons I think this is short sighted, but I understand that it is the Street Departments reaction to a lack of forethought and future planning. (Intersecting all four directions, 8 tracks  At Grade in Downtown?)

However, should this plan be implemented a configuration similar to that of central Bogota would be a decent guide. With Light Rail, a shared bus / local traffic access lane, a dedicated bike path and a shaded shared space pedestrian design, there may be enough activity and access not to kill the adjacent businesses

IMG_0294nenoseqi-1349752519 IMAG0516

Mediate the 7’s:
I am fully behind the idea of putting large medians down the 7’s in downtown. I posted some of the pictures below while I was gone to illustrate the amazing pedestrian medians in Lima (Miraflores). However, these need to be on both 7’s from Portland to Jefferson and only allow left turns at Van Buren and Jefferson. There should also be future planning to add similar medians to McDowell and Lincoln truly defining the downtown boundaries.
These arterial roads in Lima carry a large amount of traffic and yet personally as a pedestrian walking along or across them I felt comfortable and un-intimidated. These main boulevard streets tend to become a prime real estate location for residential developments. I have very little doubt that had Phoenix implemented similar plans 10 years ago the idea of a gas station at 7th street and Roosevelt would seem as ridiculous to the council as it does to the community. Despite that, there is still enough infill opportunity along these current disasters, that with a little help, good urban development could take place.

DSC04226

DSC04224

Bike lanes:
The simplicity of taking a few basic planters, paint, and maybe add a road diet to create protected bike lanes quickly and cheaply can be illustrated by Bogota’s example. However, (and I know this may be unpopular) whenever not enough space exists both Bogota and Lima continued the lanes onto sidewalks and into shared pedestrian spaces. We have some very wide and underutilized sidewalks downtown, and so continuing bike lanes from roads to sidewalks into shared spaces and back again needs to be an acceptable interim option. The key is continuation of the path.

IMG_0280 IMAG0556

DSC03806

Overall I was happy to see some good ideas in the preliminary downtown transportation study. But seeing that many cities were implementing similar ideas 10 years ago, we need to push our city to be more than just ‘caught up’ by the end of the decade.

The Central Station Transit Center Development RFP: Considering the Future- Part 1

As the city looks at development opportunities for this parcel of land, there are two interconnected points that I would like to express.

http://downtowndevil.com/2013/10/09/48835/city-looks-to-revamp-phoenix-central-station-explores-potential-of-multi-use-building

Part I. Key Points

With the South Central and Capitol West light rail extensions still under study it is too early to quantify this site’s true value. The RFP for this parcel should be put on hold until a better understanding of how these new alignments, and subsequent passengers will interact within the current downtown station configuration.

Part II. Key Points

This site should be considered for joint development (PPP). A properly structured deal would allow the city to benefit from this site’s long term earning potential while adding to our urban vibrancy today.

-Part I.

First, I feel that the city is premature in its desire to develop this property. I personally would love to see this parcel developed to its full density tomorrow, and given its location within the city, a utility value alone would bring in millions of dollars for city transportation projects. However, the bus and light rail lines give this property extra value in the form of access, and while all city services are considered access in the economic sense; in an urban setting, transportation access is typically of most value. Hard transportation infrastructure like light rail and subways, provide developers and business owners a confidence in longevity that soft transportation infrastructure e.g. bus routes cannot. These are the basic economic principles behind Transit Oriented Development(1). Because this station receives more boardings than any other within the light rail system the TOD potential for this parcel is very high.

With Valley Metro still studying how it will integrate the new South Central and Capitol West lines into the existing system, I contend that the value of this land will likely increase substantially, especially if the Transit Center starts to be used as a transfer station for separate rail lines. This is because pedestrian traffic increases greatly when comparing a destination station and a transfer station. It seems inevitable to me that Valley Metro will need to have a line transfer station somewhere downtown, and given the current track configuration the transit center is the most logical spot. Here is why.

It is unlikely that Valley Metro will run individual trains from Mesa to South Phoenix, West Phoenix, North Phoenix and in turn trains from these segments back to all other quadrants of the city. Simply because of timing issues, this would be inefficient even if trains were to run 100% full. Most likely the system will be divided into 2,3, or 4 individual lines determined by needed directness vs efficiency within current engineering limitations. Therefore, certain trips will require passengers to disembark and switch trains, just as in every major mass transit system around the world. Given our current system, this transfer load could be distributed over multiple stations in downtown. However, this typically makes timings and connections more difficult, unless you’re running trains and buses every 3-5 minutes which is unlikely given the current system demand and operation budget. This leaves a single station with connected line platforms as the best option for sequencing train timings, and reducing transfer cost(2). The transportation center therefore is the obvious first choice that meets these criteria, while additionally already servicing connections between the light rail system and metro bus system.

It is imperative for this reason that the city knows how this station will work into the greater Valley Metro configuration before any RFP is accepted. This is important not only for how pedestrian traffic may flow through the site or if any possible station configuration modifications may need, but it is also an economic concern. If the analysis shows substantially more boardings per year at these two stations, then the retail earnings potential of this site increases dramatically, and in turn the value at which the city can profit from the land is increased. I would suspect that the original developer who approached the city on this project has likely already made this calculation.

phoenix-centralstation_10817098

1 I am quickly summarizing economic rents as applied to urban land (George, Ricardo, Smith)

2 ‘Transfer cost’ being all of the externalities that come from individuals switching between transit modes or lines.

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.