Mesa City Lightrail Extension

[courtesy of Metro Lightrail]

The construction of the Mesa City lightrail extension is deep underway.

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Gas station near light rail called a bad fit

[By Gary Nelson | The Republic | azcentral.com | Tue Aug 6, 2013]

Gas station near light rail called a bad fit

Six years ago, after numerous public meetings and untold hours of work, Mesa adopted an award-winning plan to guide development along the west end of its light-rail corridor.

Accepted by the City Council by December 2007, the West Main Street Plan aims to ensure that construction will be compatible with urban mass transit. The prescription included a long list of uses to be prohibited near future rail stations, including auto-centric businesses, such as gas stations.

Now, however, a gas station is being built near the corner of Alma SchoolRoad and Main Street, within shouting distance of a future light-rail station.

Mesa resident David Crummey has been peppering City Hall with protests — to no avail, since last September’s approval by the Planning and Zoning Board for the station’s site plan and use permit was all the permission needed.

A subsequent meeting of the Design Review Board evoked promises of extra architectural flourishes, but that board couldn’t veto the overall idea.

Crummey prepared a slide show outlining his objections to the gas station, which is tied to a Fry’s supermarket.

He e-mailed the presentation to members of the City Council and met this month with members of Mesa’s planning staff to plead his case.

“Recently, I noticed new construction at the corner of Alma School and Main,” Crummy said in his presentation. “Thinking it was light-rail-related, I investigated. I found that the new construction was a gas station — a land use that I knew was prohibited near light-rail stations … and an incompatible use with creating a more walkable, neighborhood-friendly community.”

John Wesley, Mesa’s planning director, said several factors played into city staff’s recommendation for P&Z board approval.

For one thing, he said, the actual light-rail station originally was planned for the west side of Alma School, which would place it directly in front of the gas-station site.

Now the rail station is to be built on the east side of Alma School — and since that busy north-south artery stands between the gas station and the rail station, Wesley said staffers believed the fuel station wouldn’t be an adverse factor.

Further, the gas station is tied to the Fry’s store, Wesley said. It’s not grandfathered, and if the Fry’s store closes, no one else will be allowed to sell fuel there.

Crummy told The Republic in an e-mail that his meeting with city staffers “didn’t really allay my concerns, though I understand where they come from.”

City Council member Dennis Kavanaugh said he’s unhappy not only about the gas station, but about a change in city code several years ago that gave the P&Z board authority to make such decisions without council review.

“I think David Crummey’s comments are exactly on point,” Kavanaugh said. “Putting in the gas station there really is contrary to the transit-oriented development that we were encouraging in the Main Street plan that close to the light-rail station.”

Wesley and Kavanaugh both mentioned a July 8, 2008, meeting in which the Board of Adjustment unanimously denied permission for the gas station under a slightly different address — 1245 W. Main St. instead of 1235 W. Main St.

The Board of Adjustment is a council-appointed citizen committee that decides on relatively minor deviations to Mesa’s land-use policies.

Minutes of that meeting suggest the board felt bound by policy as reflected in Mesa planning documents.

A summary of “findings” in the minutes says, “The proposed fueling facility is not compatible with either the General Plan or the West Main Street Area Plan.”

The minutes also say, “The fueling station would be a detriment to surrounding properties as it would negatively impact redevelopment efforts in the area and inhibit the potential for new development opportunities that would benefit from and be supportive of proximity to light rail.”

That Board of Adjustment decision, Kavanaugh said, “should have been a red flag to everybody” when the issue came up again.

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Scottsdale express bus link to Tempe light rail proposed

[By Beth Duckett | The Republic | azcentral.com | Mon Aug 19, 2013]

Scottsdale express bus link to Tempe light rail proposed

By late 2014, bus riders in north Scottsdale could hop on a sleek new bus with limited stops to quickly reach a light-rail station in Tempe.

The Link transit system along Scottsdale/Rural Road would be the third such bus rapid-transit route in the Valley, speeding up commuter times and providing an alternative to light rail along the heavily traveled corridor.

But it comes at a price.

A transit official, in a presentation to Scottsdale’s Transportation Commission this week, estimated costs of nearly $20 million for vehicles and capital improvements to make the route a reality.

“It’s very sleek vehicles,” said Ben Limmer, corridor and facility development manager for Valley Metro, the local transportation organization in charge of, among other things, bus service. “It operates more quickly than the local bus route (and) usually has enhanced stops, longer, larger vehicles and a special brand to it.”

The price tag would be covered by federal funding and a half-cent-per-dollar sales tax authorized by Proposition 400 for transit projects.

The estimated yearly cost for operations and maintenance is $900,000.

Limmer said the system would give riders real-time information on when the next bus would arrive.

A study, due out in December,will identify an operating plan, capital improvements and final cost estimates.

The weekdays-only route likely would operate between the University Drive/Rural Road light-rail station and Camelback Road, except during peak periods when buses would extend to north Scottsdale, Limmer said.

The northernmost terminus would be north of a park-and-ride lot southeast of Scottsdale and Thunderbird roads.

Valley Metro’s Route 72 on Scottsdale/Rural Road would continue to operate seven days a week.

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Next stop: Better light-rail station descriptions

[By Amy B Wang | The Republic | azcentral.com | Tue Aug 20, 2013]

Next stop: Better light-rail station descriptions

What’s in a name?

If it’s a Valley light-rail station, not too much.

Montebello and 19th Avenue.

Indian School and Central.

McClintock and Apache.

Along the light rail’s 20-mile route, a monotone female voice announces each of the system’s 28 station names and little else.

Sure, the announcements get the job done, said Edward Jensen, secretary of the Downtown Voices Coalition and a vocal advocate for Phoenix public transportation. But there’s no sense of place, no conjuring of neighborhood identity, he said.

Jensen is proposing that the light rail’s onboard announcements include nearby points of interest to tie each station more closely with the Valley’s landmarks. And officials with Valley Metro, the light-rail system’s operator, said they’re considering it.

Jensen’s proposal renews a conversation that has been ongoing since light rail’s inception. Some in Phoenix have always lamented the ho-hum, geographically based names of the Valley’s light-rail stations and wanted them changed to reflect nearby landmarks.

According to its website, the Arizona Rail Passenger Association put out a similar list of suggested station name changes in 2010, but it’s unclear if the group is still active. Calls to the number listed for the group were not returned.

In recent e-mail exchanges with Valley Metro officials, Jensen said he was not proposing drastic name changes, which would require a lengthy approval process, but to at least have landmarks included in the onboard announcements.

“I’m more just thinking, let’s keep the station names as they are,” he said. “We’ve all seemed to learn them OK. But let’s add in the announcements: ‘This is a big thing that’s near.’ ”

He pointed out that in Washington, D.C., passengers hear that they are arriving at the “Smithsonian” Metro station, not at “12th Street and Independence Avenue SW.”

By contrast, the only points of interest included in Phoenix-area light-rail announcements are Sky Harbor International Airport, Gateway Community College and Arizona State University Tempe.

“I don’t know how many times over the past (four years) where visitors and even locals have said, ‘I’m wanting to go to here. Where do I go?’ ” Jensen said.

Light-rail trains used to include interesting landmarks in the train’s announcements, Valley Metro spokeswoman Hillary Foose said.

“Before we opened, we programmed the train to have a whole series of announcements, including greater points of interests,” she said.

The train used to announce when it was approaching a station. And when it was arriving at a station.

And some of the buildings, museums or parks around that station.

It also asked passengers not to put feet on the seats, reminded them that smoking was prohibited, told them which doors to use and cautioned them about staying safe on the trains.

It was a lot.

“What we heard pretty quickly following our opening about the announcements was there was just too many,” Foose said. “There were not enough moments of just quiet time for them to just enjoy the trip or reading or whatever. Hearing that feedback, we really scaled back on the number of announcements.”

Valley Metro officials have not ruled out the idea of reprogramming the mention of landmarks in onboard announcements, she said. They’re simply trying to find “the right balance” between announcements that serve both the local, daily light-rail commuter and the out-of-town visitor new to Phoenix.

“There is a definite interest,” Foose said. “I just want to be mindful that we don’t get back to where were when we first opened when we didn’t have a moment of silence.”

Valley Metro’s vehicle-maintenance operations team is also training to use the “complex” system used for reprogramming announcements, a task that used to be outsourced, Foose said.

Meanwhile, there are some light-rail operators who have taken it upon themselves to announce interesting Phoenix landmarks over a separate PA system.

“We do have a couple who really give it the extra mile,” Foose said. “Some operators do love their jobs, and if you ask them, they will point out the points of interest. They act like little tour guides … but we want to make it automated so we don’t have to rely on the driver.”

Jensen, who is making his appeal to Valley Metro independent of any group, said he rides light rail every day but felt compelled to push for announcement changes after riding a Phoenix bus recently. At every bus stop, the announcements included lists of numerous nearby attractions.

“The bus system calls out, highlights basic attractions more often than I think they should,” Jensen said. “So, it’s really just achieving some sort of parity between bus and light rail, as it should have been.”

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Amid city challenges, Mesa Mayor Scott Smith’s stature grows

[By Gary Nelson The Republic | azcentral.com Fri Sep 27, 2013]
 

Amid city challenges, Mesa Mayor Scott Smith’s stature grows

The Mesa that Scott Smith views from the expanse of windows in his seventh-floor downtown office is not the same one that existed when he moved in five years ago.

The town has been through a lot. City Hall itself was battered by an epic budget crisis that blew some departments to smithereens, cost hundreds of public jobs and yet sparked creative surges that led to new ways of delivering government services.

Out on the streets, a tsunami of foreclosures drove some neighborhoods to their knees. Unemployment soared. Bitter debates over immigration poisoned the well of public amity.

For a time, it appears, Mesa stopped growing altogether and may even have lost population during the worst economic downturn since President Herbert Hoover.

Yet for all that, if the mayor’s windows could offer 360-degree views, they would reveal stunning transformations from one end of the sprawling city to the other.

In the southeast, a growing passenger airport surrounded by boundless square miles ripe for development, some of which has begun.

In the northwest, a new Chicago Cubs complex and city park to open late this year as one of the top tourist draws in the Valley.

In the heart of the city, light-rail construction accompanied by three new housing projects and the arrival of several branch campuses of old-line Eastern and Midwestern liberal-arts colleges.

In all parts of town, park projects either planned or ongoing as a result of a citizen-led community brainstorming effort, as well as other new infrastructure running into the tens of millions of dollars.

All that, as they say in the commercials, and more. And along the way Smith rose from rookie mayor of an obscure desert city to the presidency of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, giving him a national voice on urban issues.

Smith cannot, and will not, claim to be the sole catalyst for the change that has rolled across Mesa this past half-decade. But he has been in the thick of it, and gave the Mesa Republic an hourlong interview focusing on his five years in office and Mesa’s next round of challenges.

Smith, 57, is not shy in describing his tenure as a mission largely accomplished.

“When I first came into office five years ago, these things were just, some of them, dreams,” Smith said. “Some of them hadn’t been thought of yet, and some of them we thought would never happen. And now they’re either here or they’re very soon to be here, and it’s an interesting feeling.”

The steady drumbeat of big headlines over those years was no accident, Smith said. “I didn’t run to do small things.”

One of his big aims from the outset was to overhaul City Hall — a process that was vastly accelerated by the recession-sparked budget crisis.

Painful as it was to slice about 350 jobs from Mesa’s payroll, Smith said, “I knew we were creative enough and our staff was good enough that we could handle it.”

The toughest nut — and one that to Smith stood as the symbol of his success or failure in boosting Mesa’s sagging civic ego — was the Cubs.

At one point, Smith said: “The Cubs were gone. They made it very clear. This was not a negotiating ploy.”

It was doubly difficult, he said, because “with the Cubs we were dealing with powers and forces beyond our control.”

Some of those were in Florida, where deep-pocketed investors offered the Cubs a new spring-training home and business opportunities. Some were in Chicago, where new owners with no historical ties to Mesa wanted to remake the team in their own image.

And some were in the state Legislature, where a tax plan to keep the Cubs in Arizona was bludgeoned to death in the spring of 2010, with boatloads of vitriol aimed in Mesa’s direction.

Finally, Mesa came up with an alternate financing plan, which city voters approved that fall by 64 percent. The stadium is now racing toward completion.

“That psychological win, that economic win and that political win, I think, sort of set the stage for a lot of good things,” Smith said.

The trick going forward, he said, is to sustain Mesa’s momentum.

“We’re not as successful as we think we are,” he said. “We’re still not out of the woods financially. … I think that’s going to continue to be one of our big challenges.”

And, he said, the mere opening of downtown college campuses and construction of light rail does not guarantee success there, either.

“Right now is when we really have to start working hard, planning for the opening of light rail,” he said. “We’re about two years away. … Now is the time to be talking to developers” about revitalizing properties along the tracks.

One of the biggest decisions, he said, will be the fate of property occupied for decades by Brown & Brown Chevrolet. Auto Nation, which now owns the dealership, is well along in planning to move the operation to south Gilbert, leaving a 10-acre scar adjacent to light rail in the heart of downtown.

Mesa also must keep its eye on the Gateway area, Smith said. Major development there is only now kicking in, and city leaders must press for quality projects that will lead to the 100,000 high-wage jobs that some planners have said are possible in that part of the city.

Smith, who cruised unopposed to re-election in 2012, has about 40 months remaining in his term as mayor. Whether he serves all that is a matter of statewide speculation; he has been widely mentioned as a potential candidate for governor in 2014.

Whatever he decides, he aims to continue working across the region and across the political divide to address not just Mesa but Arizona issues.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the whole tenor in Washington and in Phoenix is a lot more partisan and a lot more ideological than it has been,” Smith said. “I don’t think that’s good for the state or the country. We do best when we talk about how to make things better, not about who’s right or who’s wrong.”

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Valley’s light-rail call boxes aimed to help youths in crisis

[By Elisa Cordova Cronkite News ServiceMon Sep 23, 2013]
 

Valley’s light-rail call boxes aimed to help youths in crisis

Banished from home, Dion Austin, then 17, brushed his teeth at fast-food restaurants and slept in parks for three months before going to Avondale’s police station in hopes of starting a new life.

Someone there referred him to Safe Place, a national youth-outreach program that connected him with a crisis center. Austin now lives in a group home and has been attending college and working full-time.

“Because of Safe Place, I’m off the streets,” he said.

Now those in Austin’s situation can get help from Safe Place by using an emergency call box at any of Valley Metro’s 28 light-rail stations.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton joined Austin and others Sept. 18 at a news conference announcing the partnership. It extends a network that already includes many convenience stores, banks and libraries.

“In our city, in our Valley, there are no throwaway kids,” Stanton said at the Camelback and Central light-rail station. “We need to do everything we can to wrap our arms around our young people.”

A national program operated in the Valley by the Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development, Safe Place provides immediate assistance to young people who go to places that are part of the program.

Cynthia Schuler, CEO of the Tumbleweed Center, said 129 teens used Safe Place’s services last year, including those who faced family problems, were homeless or had run away from home. Adding Valley Metro to the program is a natural next step, she said.

“Now that we have this site, we expect that number to increase because they’ll have more access to Safe Place,” Schuler said.

Teens looking for the nearest Safe Place location can text their address to 69866 or call 866-723-3703 or 602-841-5799.

Austin’s journey to help took him from the Avondale police station in a taxi arranged by a nearby QuickTrip, which participates in Safe Place.

“That taxi ride was a lead to my success,” he said.

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Light rail spurs fourth housing proposal for Mesa

Courtesy of Gary Nelson The Republic | azcentral.com Feb 7, 2013

Sycamore station complex in works

Mesa is on the verge of bagging its fourth new housing project with close proximity to light rail.

Amcal Multi-Housing Inc. of Agoura Hills, Calif., is proposing a four-story, 82-unit apartment complex immediately adjacent to the Sycamore Street light-rail station.

Like the three others, which broke ground last year, Sycamore Station Apartments would be financed by federal tax credits that are designed to encourage development of low-income housing. The tax breaks allow developers to charge lower rents and still make a profit.

Amcal is applying to the Arizona Department of Housing, which issues the tax credits on a competitive basis and will decide this spring which projects to support.

The department has focused in recent years on developments with access to public transit. That criterion resulted last year in a mother lode of projects for Mesa, which had gone for years without seeing much interest in tax-credit housing.

The three projects under way will:

Create 81 units of low-income senior housing near Center Street and First Avenue. It is the first privately financed major construction in downtown in a quarter of a century.

Replace the vacant Escobedo Apartments on the north edge of downtown with a 124-unit development called Escobedo at Vista Verde.

Replace most of the La Mesita Family Shelter on West Main Street with 80 units of workforce housing.

Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh, in whose district the project would be built, said Sycamore Station Apartments appears to be a prime candidate for state approval. “It has many of the elements that are prized in such applications,” he said.

Amcal, a powerhouse in California’s affordable-housing industry, would be making its first foray into Arizona.

The company has been in business for 35 years and since 1998 it has completed 3,900 units from San Diego to the Bay Area. It has an additional 520 units in the planning or development stages.

Kavanaugh has met with Amcal and called it “a very reputable company” that has worked well with city staffers, adding, “I think it’s a very good transit-oriented development.”

“We’re always looking to follow opportunity,” said Dayna Ranger, an assistant project manager with Amcal. “Our mission is to bring affordable housing to residents that need it.”

She declined to discuss details of the Mesa project until the necessary approvals are in hand.

But in a lengthy zoning application filed with Mesa, Amcal said it often “builds on urban land that is vacant, requires environmental remediation or has obsolete uses, and transforms them into livable homes with attractive architecture and high-quality construction.”

Amcal’s Mesa project would occupy most of an unused parking lot that once was part of the defunct Tri-City Mall. In addition to rail access, residents would be within walking distance of a Safeway-anchored strip mall, Mekong Plaza, medical care and East Valley Institute of Technology.

It would be another step on the way to realizing the redevelopment potential that has long been touted by light-rail advocates.

That potential has been slow to come to fruition in Mesa, however.

By the time the first leg of light rail opened in 2008, the Great Recession had already deep-sixed two rail-oriented projects in the city.

One, called the Element at Tri-City Pavilions, was planned just north of the Safeway store at Main Street and Dobson Road. Nine five-story buildings would have offered condos designed for childless couples in their 20s and 30s.

The other, West Main Station Village, was planned on the site of a former boat dealership at 1350 W.Main St., with 56 townhouses and 13 shops.

Both would have been what are called market-based projects, with standard rents or purchase prices.

That the first iterations of light-rail development in Mesa are aimed at low-income residents caused some heartburn last year when the council was discussing the three projects then on the table — especially the downtown senior housing, which never did receive a unanimous council vote.

Kavanaugh said market-based projects will arrive in due course.

Right now, low-income projects have the edge because tax credits make them attractive to lenders, Kavanaugh said. “Conventionally-financed projects haven’t been able to get their financing. … It’s really a question of timing.”

In the meanwhile, Mesa’s experience with the three — and now possibly four — tax-credit developments should make the city attractive to other builders, Kavanaugh said.

“What I hope other developers do see is that the city, at least on the three tax-credit projects that are under way, has worked closely to move it through permitting,” he said. “We are a good place to build housing like that.”

In addition to state approval of the tax credits, Sycamore Station Apartments needs council zoning approval. That vote is scheduled for Feb.25; the Planning and Zoning Board recommended approval in January.

The final design also would need clearance from the Design Review Board.

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Light rail to Gilbert Road in Mesa comes into focus

Courtesy of AZCentral.com

Nothing is in concrete yet, but Mesa is beginning to get a clearer picture of the possible timing and costs for what seems an ever-more-likely extension of light rail to Gilbert Road.

About 50 people got up to speed on the project during a meeting Tuesday night at Mesa Church of Christ, just a block south of where the future tracks would transform the intersection of Main Street and Stapley Drive.

Work already has begun on 3.1 miles of new track from the Sycamore Street station to just west of Horne Street; service on that leg is expected to begin in late 2015. The extension to Gilbert Road would be another 1.7 miles.

Continue reading

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Press Release: October is Rideshare Month

Courtesy of Metro Light Rail

Phoenix, AZ (Sept. 24, 2012) Valley Metro wants to know if you are up to the challenge of sharing your ride at least once a week in the month of October. Employers, local residents and anyone that makes a regular drive to work or school is asked to consider alternative travel options next month.

“Sharing a ride is beneficial on so many levels,” said Dawn M. Coomer, Valley Metro Business Services Manager. “You can add minutes or hours to your day and arrive at your destination less stressed.” Considering vehicle fuel and maintenance costs, limiting the drive alone trip just one day a week can help save up to $70 a month.

According to regional air quality experts, 49 miles of vehicle travel creates one pound of pollution. With an average Valley daily commute of 32 miles, using alternative modes can reduce ground-level ozone and the additional churn of particulate matter or dust particles from vehicle use.

Western Refining employee, Mary Korba, says that joining a Valley Metro vanpool has been an exceptionally positive experience. “Not only am I saving money and time, I have developed lifelong friendships,” says Korba. “In fact, I met my husband while riding in a Valley Metro van. I guess you could say that spending quality time together twice each day has really paid off.”

Rideshare Month is an annual county-wide event that encourages the use of alternative commute options, public transit, carpools, vanpools or bicycling to help reduce emissions from vehicle use, decrease congestion and conserve energy.  Here are the ways local residents and employers can participate in Rideshare Month:

Commute Tracker contest: A perfect reason to try a new way to travel! Login or create an account at SharetheRide.com. Log daily commute activities and receive points to be entered into a contest for the chance to win prizes.

Employer Challenge: The competition warms up as the Valley’s weather cools down! Local organizations compete against each other in a Valley-wide challenge October 7-13 by getting their employees to leave their cars at home at least once a week.
More information is available by logging on to www.ValleyMetro.org.

Anyone in the Valley seeking a carpool partner, seat in a commuter vanpool, bike buddy or other travel option can go to www.ShareTheRide.com. Public transit schedules and fares, park-and-ride locations and trip planning tools, including Google Transit, are available at www.ValleyMetro.org. Customers can also call 602.262.RIDE for additional information on options to driving alone.

The Clean Air Campaign is sponsored by the Arizona Departments of Environmental Quality and Transportation, Maricopa Association of Governments, Maricopa County Air Quality Department, and Valley Metro.

About Valley Metro: Valley Metro provides eco-friendly public transit options to residents of greater Phoenix and Maricopa County, including a clean-fuel bus fleet, low-emissions light rail, commuter vanpools, online carpool matching, bus trip mapping, bicycle safety and telework assistance. Funding is provided by local and federal revenues. A board of 16 governments sets the policy direction for the agency and works to improve and regionalize the public transit system. Get the latest news by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Need More Information?

Contact Valley Metro Customer Service at
csr@valleymetro.org

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Press Release: Northwest Light Rail Extension Accelerated by Seven Years

Courtesy of Metro Light Rail

PHOENIX, AZ — Construction of light rail is back on the move in Phoenix, AZ with the re-launch of the Northwest extension along 19th Avenue from the current end-of-line north 3.2 miles to Dunlap Avenue.  The project has received approval to accelerate the completion year from 2023 to 2016.  Final design is underway; construction will begin in early 2013.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton says many in the city have been looking forward to the project beginning again, “Speaking on behalf of the residents and passengers, I know there is much anticipation to add light rail service to the highly-used bus service along this route.  This project is an investment in the community I believe in and will prove to be a great benefit with its completion.”

The Northwest extension was initially set to open this year; however, in 2009, the economic downturn and decline in local sales tax revenue forced the project on hold.  With its postponement, the project was pushed out to a 2023 completion year.  The positive strides in the economy, expected boost from the building of this extension and local willpower have helped to advance it by seven years.

This project is one of six high-capacity/light rail extensions being planned for or in active construction in the metro Phoenix region. It will extend rail service farther north into Phoenix, capturing new riders, serving high-density neighborhoods and getting closer to the Interstate 17 freeway and its employment centers.

“It’s an exciting time as we further expand into Phoenix, providing our customers with greater access to transit and choice in how they travel,” said Valley Metro CEO Steve Banta.  “It is another step in building a multi-modal Total Transit Network that supports regional growth, mobility and quality of life.”

METRO is in process of re-energizing contracts with the Northwest extension designer, AECOM, and contractor, Sundt/Stacy Witbeck.  AECOM will work through the spring to update and complete design; Sundt/Stacy Witbeck will break ground with utility relocation at the first of the year.

For more information or to be added to the Northwest distribution list, please contact Carla Kahn, Community Outreach Coordinator, at 602-744-5552 or ckahn@metrolightrail.org.

Additional information is available online at www.metrolightrail.org/northwest.

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