How we can design Phoenix’s Light Rail for the future

Zach_JosephsonPhoenix’s light rail system started service in late 2008 and by most indicators has been a tremendous success. Now, five and a half years later, there are proposals to expand the 20-mile rail line to cover more of the Valley. In an interview with Brahm Resnik on Aug. 12, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said, “I want to triple the amount of light rail in the city of Phoenix.” The Valley Metro Rail’s 2013 financial report shows potential plans for expansion into Glendale, Tolleson, and possibly further into the South Valley. While an expansion of the system could improve access to people across the Valley, we need to be sure that any expansion will be met with demand and will serve people on a daily basis.

As an ASU student, I witness the need for transit between Tempe and downtown Phoenix, but I am concerned that the plans for the light rail expansion might not be the best use of taxpayer dollars. The proposal to expand the system into Glendale, theoretically to provide transportation to University of Phoenix stadium, would help ease transportation demands on the days of Cardinals home games, but might not be heavily used during the rest of the year.

I support an expansion of the system into an area that has sufficient demand, but as with any potential city investment, there are pros and cons that the city and the voters must weigh before deciding how and where to proceed. The expansion could provide service to University of Phoenix Stadium, but is it worth expanding all the way to Glendale for eight Cardinals games per year? It’s also possible that the money could be better spent to improve the system’s existing services. These are just a few of the important issues that need to be addressed before we proceed.

The original rail system came with a price tag of roughly $1.4 billion, which was paid for by a combination of tax referendums passed by the voters, federal grants, and contributions made by the cities covered by the system. In 2013, the system’s fifth full year in operation, rider fares covered a relatively strong 44.6 percent of the operating expenses, compared with an average 31 percent for similar systems in the western part of the U.S. and the 21.6 percent of operating expenses covered by rider fares on the city’s bus system.

For me, it doesn’t make sense to spend the money to expand the system all the way to Glendale for only a handful of events in the area. Instead, the city should look for opportunities to expand into areas that will be get heavy use five days a week and that will provide economic opportunity for people who would rely on the new system to expand the number of jobs available to them.

The Phoenix Public Transit and Street Transportation Departments has taken an important step towards designing a worthwhile expansion. They have started by getting feedback from the people that would be most affected by the change of public transit offerings in Phoenix. They recently launched talktransportation.org, a site dedicated to collecting people’s ideas about which public transit options would serve them best. The city clearly understands that there are important questions that need to be answered. I support their efforts to make a well-informed decision that will serve the needs to the people around the Valley and encourage everyone to voice their opinions and ideas at talktransportation.org, so that we can have a light rail system that serves all of the Valley, all of the time.

Reach the columnist at zjosephs@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @zachjosephson

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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