As Tempe's first streetcar begins operating next year, transit officials eye routes to Mesa

February 15, 2020

As Tempe’s first streetcar route is on track to open next spring, city officials and transportation planners are considering future routes that could connect to regional destinations in Tempe and Mesa. 

The $201 million, 3-mile streetcar route that is under construction will loop around downtown Tempe, connecting riders to neighborhoods and business centers along Rio Salado Parkway, Arizona State University and the Valley Metro light-rail system.

Streetcars are smaller than light-rail cars and operate individually. Each vehicle will hold up to 125 passengers. The system is meant for shorter trips and the stops are similar to bus stops, occurring more frequently than light-rail stops.

Tempe leaders herald the project as a way to diversify public transportation, ease congestion and spur development along the route.

Now they’re eyeing future expansions.

Transportation planners began exploring an extension to Mesa in 2018. The study covers an area from Priest Drive to the west, Country Club Drive to the east, Loop 202 to the north and Baseline Road to the south.

Preliminary results identify five potential corridors that were presented to the Tempe City Council on Thursday.

No funding or timeline for the project have been identified.

5 possible streetcar corridors

The proposed corridors are:

  • Rio Salado East: The route would travel along Rio Salado Parkway from Tempe Town Lake's Marina Heights development east to Dobson Road, connecting to Tempe Marketplace, Sloan Park and Mesa Riverview.
  • Rural: The route would connect to the Tempe Community Center Complex, traveling south on Rural Road from Marina Heights and then west along Southern Avenue to Mill Avenue.
  • Dobson, Southern and Country Club: This option, entirely in Mesa, would connect Mesa Riverview, Mesa Community College and downtown Mesa.
  • Mill: This route would connect the current loop at the Apache Boulevard and Mill Avenue stop to Tempe Library.
  • Rio Salado West: This line would go from Ash Avenue and Rio Salado Parkway west, past Tempe Center for the Arts and the new IDEA Tempe office, retail and hotel development to Priest Drive.

Potential future connections could include a route connecting Mesa Riverview to downtown Mesa that would travel east on Rio Salado Parkway and then south on Country Club Drive and a line connecting the Tempe Community Center Complex to Mesa’s Fiesta District.

Other future routes could connect downtown Tempe to parts of the city east of Priest Drive and north of Loop 202.

Tempe had previously looked at the Rural Road route when planning the loop that is under construction, but the proposal was rejected by the federal government because it crossed through a primarily residential area. The area has since seen a lot of growth and interest from developers, said Eric Iwersen, Tempe’s transit manager.

The proposed routes could appease some residents who have criticized the streetcar project for not going far enough and connecting to amenities such the Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe Marketplace and the city library.

What’s next?

Transportation planners will analyze how the proposed routes integrate with other high capacity transit options being studied in the East Valley, Iwersen said.

They’ll also look at how the plan fits into the larger, regional transit picture and future regional transportation funding proposals, he said.

The first 3-mile stretch is being paid with a mix of federal grants, regional funding and a local public-private partnership.

A final report with costs, ridership and economic impact projections for each proposed route will be presented to the City Council in May.