Mesa ponders tie-in to Tempe project, and Fiesta light rail

May 27, 2017
East Valley Tribune
Gary Nelson

The East Valley’s growing network of trains and trolleys could grow even more thanks to recent action by the Mesa City Council.

During this spring’s round of budget discussions, the council agreed to spend $1.2 million to study two possible transit projects:

Extending the Tempe streetcar line into the Riverview area. Study cost: $300,000 over two years.

Extending light rail or a streetcar line from Main Street to Southern Avenue along Dobson Road, then eastward through the Fiesta District with a possible transit tie-in to downtown Chandler. Study cost: $900,000 over three years. Chandler would pay an additional $600,000.

Neither project would be ready for construction soon. But Mesa officials said during a recent council study session they want “shovel-ready” projects to offer Maricopa County voters when a proposed Proposition 500 goes to the ballot sometime in the next few years.

Proposition 500 would be another extension of the county’s half-cent transit sales tax, which pays for buses, light rail and major road projects. The last extension, called Proposition 400, won approval in 2004 and expires in 2026.

“I think it’s important that we be well positioned for Proposition 500,” Mayor John Giles said.

After years of planning, Tempe expects to begin construction of its downtown streetcar loop in June. The first phase will be utility work along Mill Avenue. Completion of the $177 million project is expected in the fall of 2020.

The north end of Tempe’s line will end at Marina Heights along Rio Salado Parkway.

But Mesa has long been interested in running the line eastward to the Chicago Cubs’ spring training stadium and the next-door Riverview shopping district. Such an extension also would serve Tempe Marketplace at McClintock Drive and Rio Salado.

The idea of pushing light rail through the Fiesta District into Chandler also has been under consideration for years.

Jodi Sorrell, Mesa’s transit services director, said Southern Avenue was considered for light rail when the Valley began its initial planning for the system. The area remains an attractive transit target because it has two major hospitals, Mesa Community College and the city’s densest concentration of multifamily housing.

Sorrell said the Southern Avenue bus line already generates 730,000 riders a year, demonstrating a need for high-capacity transit.

“For Mesa, it works out well,” she said. “It does look like a viable corridor.”

Dan Cook, Chandler’s city engineer, told the Tribune this year that the city is conducting a series of studies to determine whether high-capacity transit from downtown into Mesa is feasible. The $1.5 million joint study with Mesa is part of that process.

Scott Butler, deputy Mesa city manager, said Fiesta is the only area in the city likely to get serious consideration for federal light-rail funding in the near future. “There are very stringent federal criteria” for such projects, Butler said.

When studies are finished for both the north-side streetcar line and the Fiesta District, Mesa expects to have enough information that the council can decide on exact routes.

Down the road, Mesa also will revisit alternatives for extending the Main Street light rail line past Gilbert Road and, eventually, into the Gateway area.