Feds Free Up $587M for Phoenix Light Rail

Tue February 08, 2005 - West Edition

PHOENIX (AP) Saying the nation’s sixth-largest city was “strangling on its congestion,” the country’s top transit official signed an agreement to free $587 million in federal money to help sprawling Phoenix build a light rail system.

For Phoenix to “not plan ahead on something that is not focused on the automobile would be foolhardy,” Federal Transit Administrator Jennifer Dorn said after signing the agreement with the mayors of Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa and Glendale.

Street construction on a segment of track near the border of Tempe and Phoenix is set to begin by the end of February. A train will run on about a mile of test track by spring 2006.

A starter segment initially set to open at the end of 2006 is now scheduled to open in December 2008.

When that happens, transportation officials say congestion will be greatly eased on the freeways that serve about 3 million residents in one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities.

Cars line up for blocks at some freeway onramps during peak hours, and it can easily take more than an hour for motorists to get to the outskirts from downtown during rush hour. With light rail, it will take about 20 minutes to get from downtown to Tempe and about the same time to get to north Phoenix. It will take 55 minutes to get from one end of the initial 20-mile arterial route to the other, including stops.

Besides easing traffic problems, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon said light rail will create 1,600 full-time jobs. Property values surrounding the track will increase and the air will be cleaner, he added.

Gordon said light rail will enliven the downtown area, where streets typically empty after businesses close, forcing residents to drive to the suburbs for dining and entertainment.

Not everyone agrees, though. Project opponent Camilla Strongin said transportation money would be better spent on freeways since light rail is expensive, and construction will clog surface streets even more.

“The city is not designed with a dense-population core that would be well served by a light rail system,” Strongin said.

In 2000, Phoenix passed a 0.4 percent sales tax for a transit plan that included light rail. The initial 20-mile arterial route will cost $1.3 billion, about half of which comes from the federal government.