Tampa looks to Phoenix as model for light rail system
More than a decade ago, Phoenix baseball officials showcased a video of their state of the art ballpark during a lavish Tampa Bay reception, overwhelming the home team's introduction of Tropicana Field.
Local business and civic leaders that night yearned for a comparable facility, even before the Rays' first season had begun.
Once again local officials are casting an envious eye toward Phoenix. This time they are studying a 20-mile light rail system that could serve as a model for
a proposed system in
This week, a Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce contingent will visit Phoenix to explore the Valley Metro light rail system. Relying on light rail, they will visit museums, malls, the airport, Arizona State University, the suburbs and downtown, including a D-Backs game at Chase Field.
Phoenix's Valley Metro Rail has exceeded ridership expectations in each of its first two years of operation, serving not only commuters and college students, but a surprising number of people who use light rail to reach shopping and entertainment venues.
At the same time, the system has been criticized for not going to places convenient to and necessary for those commuting to jobs.
Return on investment
During 2009, its first year of operation, Phoenix's weekday ridership averaged 34,809, 34 percent above projections. Monthly ridership this year has exceeded year-ago totals by 7 percent to 19 percent, with a 16 percent gain in August to 1.02 million passengers.
Perhaps more impressive is that from 2004, when the federal government approved a funding match to build the light rail line, $7.4 billion in investment has been reported within a half-mile of the right-of-way, Valley Metro data shows, including $5.9 billion by the private sector.
"That's a pretty good rate of return on the $1.4 billion in public investment," said Hillary Foose, a Valley Metro spokeswoman and Phoenix native who has experienced the evolution of a downtown that used to shut down after business hours.
"It's a system about the same length of what we are considering in Tampa, connecting multiple activity centers," said David Armijo, chief executive of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, who will be part of the Tampa group.
"We can learn how Phoenix managed to gain support for a system after initial (funding) failures, how they integrated rail into a bus-only network, and most important, we can get an idea of what we can do here."
Phoenix's light rail line stretches from a 1960s-era mall near the midsection of the city that remains a hub for bus connections, south along an increasingly vibrant Central Avenue corridor that once resembled the most sparse areas of Tampa's West Kennedy Boulevard.
The silent, electric powered trains turn east into downtown, where they serve the convention center, the ball park and US Airways Center, home of the Phoenix Suns National Basketball Association team. The rail line passes construction on the
City/Scape project, a commercial, residential and hotel development that gained a CVS/pharmacy
this summer, the first such store to open downtown in decades.
Trains pick up speed at this point â?? they can reach 55 mph but are restricted to 35 mph, with an average of 22 mph along streets and dedicated corridors -- on the way to a station adjacent to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. A free bus connection serves the airport, but an automated train will replace the buses.
Then it's across a bridge to the suburb of Tempe, home of Arizona State University and a trendy shopping area along Mill Avenue.
The trains continue eastward past apartment complexes with names like "Campus Suites On The Rail," for ASU students who pay $80 a year for travel. The university finances the remainder of the fare through campus parking charges.
Valley Metro terminates in Mesa, an east Phoenix suburb where a 3.1 mile extension is planned. Five more extensions totaling another 35.5 miles are planned through 2031.
Rail service limited
Pete Glaser, a resident of the eastern Phoenix suburb of Gilbert, uses light rail when his family of four heads downtown, in particular to baseball games.
The trip by light rail takes 75 minutes, compared with 45 minutes by car. But that's no problem.
"I don't have to drive and put up with all that darn traffic," Glaser on a Saturday in July when his family
took a ballpark tour before a Diamondbacks/San Francisco Giants game.
"It gives the family some time together in a different kind of way. It's a great venue for people watching. It ends up being a few bucks cheaper between the cost of gas and parking."
Valley Metro charges $1.75 for a one-way ride and $3.50 for an all day pass among myriad rate structures.
"It actually adds to the overall entertainment for the whole event, Glaser said. " I know that sounds weird, but it just does."
But the Phoenix metro area is so spread out that light rail does not go far enough to the north, south, east or west to be useful, Glaser said.
"I can't use it for my 17-mile drive to work," he said. "Neither can 98 percent of us, It's only good if you work downtown.
"I would use it more often if it went where I go," Glaser said. "For example I had jury duty last month. It was downtown. I used light rail to get back and forth."
Glaser and others say the mindset of the auto-oriented Valley of the Sun has changed very little.
The light rail system has its roots in longstanding highway congestion throughout the Phoenix area as the metro area's population grew from 1.5 million in 1980 to 3.3 million in 2000. The city of Phoenix today is the 10th most populated city in the county with a population of 1.3 million.
In 1989, voters defeated plans to finance a 100-mile rail system throughout the Phoenix area. Five years later, leaders included road and street improvements in their funding request, but voters again turned it down.
Tempe voters in 1996 approved a half-cent on the dollar sales tax increase to improve the city's bus system and also to be part of a rail system if other cities passed tax increases.
Meanwhile, Phoenix voters turned down a tax in 1997, but in 2000, OK'd a four-tenths of a cent on the dollar sales tax for public transit, nine months before the final route of track was determined. Since that approval, Mesa has also voted to help fund rail.
As in Phoenix, Hillsborough voters won't know the final proposed routes when they go to the polls on Nov. 2 to decide on a 1 cent on the dollar sales tax increase, with 43 percent dedicated to light rail. General East-West and North-South corridors have been identified.
Despite a 2004 report by the conservative Goldwater Institute think thank that assailed light rail as neither cost effective nor as safe as buses, construction was under way a year later, with the federal government chipping in $587.2 million to build the line.
Twenty-five percent of today's annual $33.2 million operational budget is covered by fare revenue with the remaining 75 percent from sales tax revenue in Phoenix and Tempe and general funds from Mesa.
When the recession continued to carve into the revenues this summer, service was altered in July, primarily by extending train departures from 10 minutes to 12 minutes. But August ridership continued to rise.
"Definitely the economy has affected the number of transactions," said Don Mortensen, a Phoenix native and real estate broker who publishes a free magazine that lists real estate, retail and restaurants near the light rail line.
"People had expectations their property along light rail would be a gold mine and were asking four times the value. It was outrageous."
Mortensen's business, however, is good enough that he's planning to expand into Denver, Salt Lake City, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose and San Diego with a business plan similar to what he launched in Phoenix -- target apartments near light rail lines for advertisements on a website, add a glossy magazine that relies on ad sales and eventually sell property.
He has seen good and frustrating developments â?? the latter involving loss of business during construction of light rail and train operating hours that don't always cover late night entertainment venues.
But he has seen successes, like an International House of Pancakes at a Mesa station which saw business soaring 50 percent after light rail began.
"They even marketed 'IHop on rail to go to work,' selling breakfast in a bag," Mortensen said.