Mesa light-rail expansion on track

courtesy of Sean Holstege
The Republic |

Valley Metro is set to break ground today on the first light-rail expansion, a 3.1-mile stretch into downtown Mesa that city leaders hope will bring a sorely needed economic boost.

The $200 million extension is expected to attract thousands more East Valley riders daily and potentially nurture new development along the line.

Mesa’s hopes reflect a broader optimism among Valley transit planners. After delaying and scaling back projects during the recession, they see new signs of life for efforts to build out the system.

“I’m encouraged right now. We were concerned because of the economy, and we had to slow down the program. But now, we may have three active projects under construction within a year,” said Wulf Grote, Metro planning director. The other two are a Tempe streetcar line and a northwest Phoenix light-rail extension.

Two years ago, regional planners scaled back and postponed light-rail and freeway projects because the main source of funding, a half-cent-per-dollar sales tax approved by voters in 2004, was bringing in far less revenue than anticipated. Two light-rail lines in northeast and northwest Phoenix were deferred indefinitely.

Now, with the economy picking up, the Maricopa Association of Governments last week moved up the starting date for the northwest extension. The Mesa project is ahead of schedule by months and could be open in a little more than three years.

By 2016, it’s possible that the light-rail system will extend from 19th and Dunlap avenues in northwest Phoenix to downtown Mesa, a distance of 26 miles. It also would have a connection to the Sky Train people-mover into Sky Harbor International Airport’s Terminal Four, and it would intersect with a planned 14-station streetcar loop near Arizona State University in Tempe.

Despite the progress, the system, which opened in December 2008, is still not exactly the one presented to voters in 2004’s Proposition 400. Funding and other issues have caused planners to propose delaying construction of some lines and adding others.

Here’s a rundown:

Mesa extension: After today’s groundbreaking, work will start with utility relocation. Work on the tracks won’t begin until next year. By late 2015, Metro expects to carry passengers on the extension, which will run from the system’s busiest station at Sycamore Road to Mesa Drive downtown. There will be four additional stops and a park-and-ride lot downtown.

In early planning, Mesa and Metro found a larger-than-expected demand for East Valley rail service. Studies showed that large numbers would drive from miles around to reach the line and that more people would board a Gilbert Road station than the planned terminal downtown.

As a result, Mesa agreed to pay for environmental work to accelerate a second extension as far as Gilbert Road, which was not initially envisioned when planners conceived or voters approved the light-rail system. The environmental studies could start this summer.

Grote said the transit agency has enough vehicles to handle extra passengers from the Mesa and northwest extensions.

Northwest extension: Initially, a 5-mile route was envisioned to reach a business park on the eastern side of Interstate 17 opposite the Metrocenter mall in northwest Phoenix. Later, the plan changed to build it in phases. Then in 2010, Phoenix, which is paying for almost all the extension using its own transit-sales tax, saw the money dry up. MAG postponed the project indefinitely on the eve of construction.

This month, MAG restored the first phase of the extension, projecting that service would begin on a 3-mile, three-station extension to Dunlap and 19th avenues by 2016. For that to happen, the Phoenix City Council must approve a plan to shift money. Action may happen next month, Grote said.

After that, Metro engineers must revisit the design, renegotiate contracts and finish some right-of-way deals.

MAG pushed the opening date of the entire 5-mile extension past 2025, when Proposition 400 money expires, meaning it’s on indefinite hold.

Under Proposition 400, the extension was to have been in service by now.

West extension: Regional planners pushed back by two years the opening date for a planned extension along Interstate 10 to west Phoenix, from 2021 to 2023. The 11mile line would also serve the state Capitol.

Last week, the Metro governing board approved a preliminary study recommending the route. In July, MAG is expected to make the final decision on that plan, which calls for light-rail trains to run mostly alongside I-10, with some track in the median.

Glendale extension: Recent action put the plan to run trains west into downtown Glendale on indefinite hold. Since passage of Proposition 400, city leaders have complicated the Glendale Avenue concept by suggesting that a north-south line along Loop 101 past the city’s sports complex would be more productive.

Metro is wrapping up a feasibility study and has applied for federal money to study the best route and type of vehicle. Planners expect an answer this summer.

Northeast extension: Valley voters originally approved a line into northeast Phoenix that ended at Paradise Valley Mall. Since then, the line has been deferred indefinitely, and no serious study has begun. Recent action pushes the opening date one year further out, to 2032.

South Phoenix extension: A line down South Central Avenue to Baseline Road was never considered by the region’s voters. Phoenix started a preliminary analysis in the spring, with results expected within two years. The city will hold public meetings on the concept this summer. So far, there is no money for the project and no expected opening date.

Tempe extension: The original concept was a short spur line along Rural Road going as far south as Southern Avenue. But engineering a path to avoid freight tracks proved troublesome, and city leaders decided instead to pursue a streetcar plan, which emerged as a viable option in preliminary studies.

The system would have in-street tracks, modeled loosely after a system in Portland, Ore., and smaller trains with more stops and more frequent service than Metro trains. Metro has applied for federal approval and federal money to proceed with the plan. The streetcar would run in a loop through downtown Tempe, then south on Mill Avenue to Southern Avenue. It would have 13 stops.

Tempe planners were so encouraged by early studies they have started thinking about extensions along Rio Salado Parkway as far east as the Chicago Cubs’ new stadium in Mesa near Loops 101 and 202. Another streetcar extension would go to Rural and Southern.

Sky Train: Sky Harbor is managing this project with airport funds and is now testing driverless trains on the track. Trains from Metro’s 44th Street station to Sky Harbor’s Terminal Four will begin carrying passengers next year.

A future phase to Terminal Two is expected to open two years later, with a line to the Rental Car Center planned for 2020.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *