Work to Lay Tracks for Light Rail Begins in Arizona

Sat March 05, 2005 - West Edition

TEMPE, AZ (AP) Approximately five years after Phoenix area voters approved light rail, construction on the first line of Metro track began Feb. 15.

Mayors from the three cities where the initial rail will run –– Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa –– joined dignitaries and the public for a ceremony to officially mark the start of the project.

Utility work and construction of the train’s maintenance and storage facility is already under way. Now, workers will start digging up roads and laying track for an initial 20-mi. route, beginning with a 1-mi. segment near the border of Tempe and Phoenix. Rail cars will start running on that test track by spring 2006.

Instead of a traditional groundbreaking, a crowd of officials and onlookers watched as a life-size replica of the planned bridge that will carry Metro riders over Tempe Town Lake was lit.

The celebrants also filled a time capsule to mark the occasion. The capsule, which will be displayed at one of the rail stations, will be opened in 20 years.

“It’s the first clear demonstration that we’re involved in a very regional transportation system,” said Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman. “Folks are already recognizing that this is an opportunity to take advantage of a transportation system and create an improved quality of life.”

In March 2000, Phoenix voters passed a four-tenths of a percent sales tax for a transit plan that included bus service improvements and light rail. The initial arterial route will cost $1.3 billion. Last month, the Federal Transit Administration committed $587.2 million to pay for approximately half of the construction costs. Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa are picking up the rest of the tab.

The initial arterial line is scheduled to open in December 2008. It will start in north Phoenix, go south into downtown, then head east past the airport and through downtown Tempe to end approximately a mile into suburban Mesa to the east.

Once running, it will take riders approximately 20 minutes to get from downtown Phoenix to Tempe and approximately the same time to get to north Phoenix. It will take 55 minutes to get from one end to the other of the 20-mi. arterial section.

“We have to free up this Valley so we don’t choke like other some Eastern cities have,” said Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, referring to the worsening congestion on city freeways.

An additional 30.7 mi. have preliminarily been planned to branch east into downtown Mesa, northwest near Glendale and northeast to Paradise Valley. A rail line that goes west also is being considered.

The electric train promises to ease commutes for suburbanites and invigorate downtown Phoenix, which is largely abandoned at the end of the workday.

Athenian Express, a Greek restaurant that sits along Central Avenue in Phoenix, experiences the workday exodus. While lunch crowds pack the place during the week, there’s not enough business for owners Stacy DiSalvo and George Kritikos to keep their doors open at night or on the weekends.

While the lure of added business is exciting for them, enduring three years of messy construction also could be costly.

“We’re just trying to build up as much business as we can before the construction starts,” DiSalvo said.

Others, like barbershop owner Robert Hatch, think a train is long overdue for Phoenix, a city about to become the fifth-largest in the country.

“It’s worth it,” said Hatch, who has owned his central Phoenix shop for 10 years.

“You gotta have some type of theme and be able to get people here from the airport,” said the Chicago native. “That’s just big city stuff.”