Newer readers to this blog might wonder why the parenthetical "WBIYB" is always inserted after the first reference to Phoenix light rail. It stands for: We Built It, You Bastards. A reminder of the hysterical, ignorant and too often thuggish opposition to a transportation technology that had proved successful around the country. I received death threats and demands that I be fired for columnizing in favor of light rail at the Arizona Republic. Well, you bastards, we built it and it is a big success, aside from the distortions that suppress transit-oriented development. Such a big success that Mesa (!) is building the line deeper into the city — and you can thank former Mayor Keno Hawker for having the foresight to persuade his colleagues to help fund one mile into the city; otherwise, Mesa would have been cut off from a system it now embraces.
It's a tough slog. The Legislature and governor are hostile to anything but freeways. The great crash slowed funding from Prop. 400 to a trickle, and even then most of it was going to build transportation infrastructure appropriate to the 1960s rather than today, including the misbegotten Loop 303 and South Mountain Freeway. While these will enrich a few connected developers, they are engines of sprawl, congestion, pollution and expansion of the heat island. Most Phoenicians can't imagine a lifestyle that doesn't revolve around long single-occupancy car trips.
Even so, the 20-mile starter line is expanding not only into downtown Mesa but also toward Metrocenter mall. An ambitious new line is being prepared to run west from downtown to a park-and-ride at 79th Avenue and Interstate 10. The West Line/Capitol Line is widely misunderstood in the media, but it would be an important step to creating a much more robust light-rail system.
Contrary to what you might have read or heard, this new line is not going "to Tolleson" Is this part of the media's desperate attempt to "Valley"-ize everything rather than using the enchanting name Phoenix? Or is it just simple ignorance of geography? In fact, the line will never leave the city of Phoenix, whose taxpayers have invested more than $800 million in light rail.
The key to the Capitol Line is the state capitol. The state office complexes are a mother lode of employment, so getting light rail to 19th and Van Buren is critical to expanding the service to the next level. Beyond that, the St. Matthews district west of the capitol is a solid transit neighborhood. From there, a quick ride to the Desert Sky Mall area of west Phoenix (with a park-and-ride at the future intersection of I-10 and South Mountain Freeway, plus a couple of neighborhood stops in between) will attract more riders with a commuter-type ride that is on its own right of way in the 1-10 corridor. This will be the most versatile light-rail extension yet, promising commuter trips from 10 miles out of the city center as well as linking closer in neighborhoods and the capitol employment center to Phoenix/Tempe/Mesa on the original line. This starts creating a genuine light-rail system with crossing lines branching out from the single long mega-line we have now. Eventually, the concept is to have one line from Desert Sky to Mesa and another from Metrocenter to South Mountain.
Unfortunately, the Capitol Line won't really serve Maryvale, either. This is another media-fed misconception. Federal funding comes to prospective lines that can guarantee high ridership (this is why the starter line, running on the same route as the over-capacity red-line bus, was guaranteed to be a hit). The Capitol Line can meet this criteria. Unfortunately, Maryvale was laid out as a classic 1950s automobile suburb. It lacks density and an urban core. That said, Maryvale, with its large population of working poor, desperately needs light rail and more frequent bus service to feed it. A line along Indian School to 75th Avenue would be ideal.
Beyond this, metro Phoenix needs to branch out from an over-reliance on light rail. Commuter rail centered at Union Station and served by a streetcar and buses could best provide service to Gilbert, Chandler, Goodyear, Buckeye, Glendale, Peoria, Sun City and Surprise. These are fast "heavy rail" trains with few stops. On the West Coast alone, San Diego, LA, the Bay Area and Seattle have commuter-rail systems as well as light rail. So does Dallas-Fort Worth (Dallas has one of the biggest light-rail systems in the country). And, of course, commuter rail is ubiquitous in the Northeast.
Phoenix also needs intercity rail. Had the state been willing to make a modest investment in the 1990s on the former Southern Pacific northern main line, Amtrak would still serve Phoenix rather than running through Maricopa. This would have preserved passenger rail to Tucson and points east, as well as to Los Angeles (the city was served by four trains a day in each direction as late as the 1960s). Now the investment will be considerably more, but it is needed more than ever. Amtrak keeps breaking ridership records. Phoenix and Tucson need several trains connecting them each day, as the popular Cascades Corridor connects Eugene, Ore., Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. in the Northwest.
Rail options are needed for many reasons: Climate change, road congestion, the environmental costs of cars, the productivity lost stuck in traffic, central Arizona being highly urbanized, an overburdened airline system and changing tastes — more people want the choice not to drive. It will require state support, as well as that of at least a big part of the congressional delegation. Somehow Texas pulls this off, and gets huge federal transportation grants, while still being redder than thou. I know, I know...good luck with all that.
But all across the country, passenger rail development is accelerating (check out The City Desk). Dallas just opened two more light-rail lines. Fort Worth is moving on a commuter system. St. Paul opened its lovingly restored Union Station as a multi-modal hub. Denver is undertaking a massive restoration and expansion of its Union Station for Amtrak, light rail and commuter rail. LA is doing amazing things. All this leaves Phoenix at a further competitive disadvantage that sunshine won't make up for.