Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Phoenix is Building Light Rail, Why Aren't We?

Phoenix, Arizona isn’t the first city that comes to mind when you think about public transit and light rail, but that’s about to change. In 2000, the citizens of Phoenix voted for a 0.4% sales taxes to improve bus service and create a rapid transit system. The story of transportation in Phoenix echoes that of many cities that experienced rapid growth post-world war II.

Phoenix started out as a small agricultural community. It developed pretty much like all cities in its era: Main Streets and streetcar lines. In 1912, Phoenix became the capital of the state of Arizona and by the 1920’s the city was a little metropolis. By that time, the city had streetcars, suburban passenger rail service, long-haul passenger rail service, and a developing road network. In 1947, the streetcar barn burned to the ground destroying all but six of the city's streetcars. Of course GM stepped in and the city tore-up its streetcar network for “modern” buses.

By the 1960’s, the city's population was exploding. Due to the US federal government’s policy of ensuring that essentially only new suburban developments received mortgages, and its multi-billion dollar Interstate freeway program, sprawl was on the menu for the region. Road congestion was taking its toll by the 1980’s, and with no way out (the transit system was a mess and passenger rail service was long discontinued), the citizens of the Phoenix region voted “yes” for something called Proposition 300 in 1985.

It was a 0.5% sales taxes (expiring in 2005) to fund a massive freeway expansion program and form a regional transportation authority to oversee the patchwork transit systems. The 90’s saw a doubling freeway miles, but still bus service was limited (there was no Sunday service or Saturday evening service until 2001. The region had about 3 million people.) Also in the 90’s, the citizens of the region were asked to vote on Proposition 400 that would have added another 0.5% tax only for freeways. Seeing that a freeway only system would not work, the citizens voted it down. With the Proposition 300 freeway tax ending in 2005, the people of Phoenix voted to continue the tax until 2025, but this time it would fund both roads and transit. It should be noted that since the mid-90’s many of the cities in the Phoenix area have also voted for transit-only taxes.

Today the Phoenix area is still building freeways (sadly), but now they are also building a quality transit system. The first part of their new rapid transit system is a 32km light rail starter line from central Phoenix to its eastern communities. There is already a 6km extension ready for construction and 44.5km more in the works.

They will also implementing a BRT/Express bus service.

Bus Expansion Map

Light Rail/BRT (Express Bus) Expansion Map

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