Light rail: Phoenix's surprise

Neville Green, Times Staff Writer

Published Friday, January 8, 2010

Hillsborough County is considering increasing the sales tax by a penny to pay for — among other transportation improvements — the beginnings of a light rail system. To skeptics, the prospects of light rail being successful in a sprawling, car-centric area like ours are dismal. And that's what many people in Phoenix felt, too, when that city launched its 20-mile, $1.4 billion light rail system a year ago. So, what has happened in Phoenix, a Sun Belt city with many similarities to Tampa? A report card on Phoenix's Valley Metro after one year:


The light rail system has been a greater success than its proponents thought it would be, but not quite the way they envisioned. In its first year, Valley Metro carried more than 10 million people, an average of nearly 35,000 passengers a day — and 34 percent over the initial projection of 26,000 riders per day.

But unlike the rest of the country's public transportation systems, which are used principally by commuters, the 20 miles of light rail stretching from central Phoenix to Mesa and Tempe has turned out to be used largely by people going to restaurants, bars, ball games and cultural events in downtown Phoenix. Only 27 percent of passengers use the train for work.

Pub crawls along the light rail have become a weekend staple, and restaurants have seen new customers from outside the neighborhood popping in off the line for brunch on the weekends. In July, the rail system added late-night service on weekends.

"It is bringing us new customers who didn't have time to get in the car and drive out here before," said Joel Miller, a co-owner of Maizies Cafe and Bistro, which sits right along the rail line.

The system got a real test of its capacity on May 13. That day President Barack Obama delivered the commencement speech at Arizona State University hours before the Arizona Diamondbacks played in downtown Phoenix. With no major problems, the trains carried more than 50,000 people on a day of triple-digit temperatures, the Arizona Republic reported.

Some innovative ideas have boosted the nighttime use of the system. In September, the city's downtown arena — US Airways Center — teamed up with Valley Metro to use tickets for the NBA's Phoenix Suns and other events as train fares, the first such arrangement in the country. The experiment worked: The line is carrying about 15 percent of Suns fans and added 11,000 passengers in the campaign's first month.

A new image

Residents say the Metro has given the city a distinctly modern feel. "There has been this pent-up demand for downtown Phoenix to grow up," Nick Bastian, a real estate agent, told the New York Times. "And the light rail has given people an excuse to say let's go down there and check it out."

In some part thanks to the light rail system, downtown Phoenix appears to be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise economically pummeled city, which like the rest of Arizona has suffered under the crushing slide of the state's economy. In the first quarter of 2009, downtown Phoenix saw its revenue increase 13 percent, while the rest of the city saw a fall of 16 percent, according to the city's Community and Economic Development Department.

Matt Pool, owner of Matt's Big Breakfast, a busy spot along the line, says the system "really improves the image and perception of Phoenix's downtown, which, although experiencing a significant renaissance in recent years, still is undergoing many improvements and changes. The light rail, largely because it is so well run and nicely appointed, is something that I think most people are really proud of and feel positive about."


The system's low fares remain a point of contention, as it is heavily subsidized. One-way tickets are $1.75, with all-day passes for $3.50 and discounted rates for longer-term passes. During the first year, the system laid off train operators, trimmed its support staff and postponed expansions to met its operating budget.

Valley Metro depends on the cities of Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa to subsidize its operating costs. The system could face a battle to hold on to its current funding as the three cities continue to face historic deficits amid the recession.

The system also struggled with slow trains at first. An end-to-end trip was supposed to take 55 minutes. Initially, it took 75 minutes. Compounding that problem was a delay in setting up automatic station announcements telling passengers their wait times.

Compiled from reporting by the Arizona Republic and the New York Times.

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