December 7, 2018
Skip Rimsza, Neil Giuliano
Grand Funk Railroad launched into its hit, “The Loco-Motion,” on an open-air stage in Mesa. Across the parking lot, people poured into sleek, shiny rail cars for the first time. On that incredibly cold day in December 2008, a band with a name from the past welcomed 21st Century transportation to the Valley.
It was a day of great promise.
Light rail has more than delivered on that promise in the 10 years since. More than 35,000 new jobs, tens of thousands of students and tourists and more than $11 billion in public and private investment have transformed the 26-mile corridor.
Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa are more tightly linked than ever, with greater incentives to collaborate. More people can reach their destination in a single trip, with time saved, compared to transit travel before Dec. 27, 2008.
The three of us are proud to have believed this was possible when we championed the vision of light rail. Skip Rimsza embraced mass transit as a pivotal issue not just for Phoenix, but the entire region, when he was elected Phoenix mayor in 1994. As mayor of Tempe, Neil Giuliano led the campaign to pass a city transit sales tax in 1996, another pioneering effort. Mary Peters, secretary of transportation under President George W. Bush, advocated for federal funding to get transit projects off the ground.
While we shared the dream of what light rail could be, we remain amazed at how much has come to pass in a mere decade. So many more possibilities remain.
How light rail has met its 4 goals
Light rail launched with four goals: to connect communities, to enhance customer experience, to drive the economy and to improve community health. Let’s examine how we’ve done with each:
Connecting communities. The light rail corridor generally follows the old Red Line bus route. In the year before light rail opened, the Red Line carried 2.8 million riders. In 2017, light rail had 16.5 million riders. Commutes have become easier for workers and students. Twenty-five percent more high schools are now within an hour’s travel to Gateway Community College. City leaders talk to each other more. Where once they would have gone separate directions, Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa coordinated on adding GRID bike stations adjacent to light rail.
Enhancing customer experience. Light rail carries twice as many people per hour on Central Avenue compared to automobiles. During rush hour, light rail cuts 15 minutes off travel time, which may be why 81 percent of customers said they were very satisfied with Valley Metro’s service. On-time performance has improved by 14 percent. Residents also benefit from a safer and more accessible corridor with the addition of 43 new crosswalks and 70 pedestrian crossings.
Driving the economy. These numbers are impressive. We mentioned the 35,000 new jobs and $11 billion of investment along the corridor. That investment added 50 million square feet of new construction in 344 projects. Many of those filled in eyesore vacant lots that had sat untouched for years. Light rail has brought new life and vibrancy to the downtowns of Phoenix and Mesa, including college campuses and students. ASU’s downtown Phoenix campus and Benedictine University in Mesa would not have been as successful without light rail.
More than 25,000 new residential units have been built along the line. People once again live in downtown Phoenix. The Central Avenue corridor has 20 percent more jobs today, compared to 2005. And more than $400 million in new projects have been built or are planned in downtown Mesa.
Light rail has also provided a big boost to tourism. Light rail was central to bringing both Super Bowl XLIX and the 2017 NCAA Final Four to the Valley. Ridership for Super Bowl weekend was 390,000, including a single-day record of 126,000 on Saturday. In addition, more than 300 special events, from concerts to arts festivals, were directly served by light rail last year.
Improving community health. Over the past decade, light rail has reduced 27,000 car trips daily, which saved more than 60 million gallons of gas over a decade and kept more than 19,000 tons of pollutants out of Valley skies.
People who live along the light rail corridor spend 39 percent of their household income on housing and transportation, well below the 53 percent average for Maricopa County. More than 2,200 affordable housing units have been built in the corridor. Food deserts are greening; grocery stores have opened up within walking distance of half of the rail stations.
What to expect in the next 10 years
It’s been a phenomenal first decade, but much more progress lies ahead. The extension of light rail into south Phoenix will create new opportunity in an area that has too often been neglected. Residents and business owners will benefit from the same economic bump that has transformed downtown Mesa and central Phoenix and Tempe.
High-capacity transit, including light rail, will be central to the conversation on future mobility. Valley Metro is striving to be a leader in this effort and is partnering with Waymo to use its self-driving cars to study how this new technology will best interface with public transportation.
This kind of partnership will be a boon for seniors going to the doctor, students going to school or adults going to work. And it’s just the first of what will likely be more innovative alliances that will change how we think of transportation.
We cannot forget that we wouldn’t be celebrating this 10th anniversary if it hadn’t been for the voters in Maricopa County who overwhelmingly approved transportation funding initiatives that helped build new freeways, streets and transit improvements, including light rail. Those "yes" votes vastly improved the Valley’s quality of life in so many ways.
The next challenge: Funding
Unfortunately, the Great Recession knocked the legs out from under the economy, creating billion-dollar shortfalls in expected revenues. The possibility of these funding streams expiring before they can be renewed by voters would have devastating, real-world consequences. It could derail local and federal dollars needed to keep pace with our region’s growing transportation infrastructure needs.
One thing is certain: the Valley will continue to grow, with more than one million new residents expected in just the next 15 years. We must continue to strategically invest in all forms of transportation – including highways, roadways and transit – to deliver the economic and community health benefits our region deserves. With history as our guide, we’re confident it will happen.
In this first decade, we’ve seen our big dreams for light rail come true. It’s time to dream bigger yet.
Mary Peters was Secretary of Transportation in the George W. Bush administration. Skip Rimsza was mayor of Phoenix from 1994-2004. Neil Giuliano was mayor of Tempe from 1994-2004.