All Aboard?

Talk about a commuter train between Tucson and Phoenix gains new life.

The impact of state population growth on transportation is forcing a new, regional perspective--especially for those who regularly make the dreary commute to Phoenix.

While Interstate 10 construction gets worse, old ideas are resurfacing, particularly in the Phoenix-Tucson transportation corridor. It's that stretch of highway where a commuter train was proposed along the Union Pacific tracks and then shelved on the count of sloth.

Now, the proposal's back.

"It's something that's gotten legs since Sept. 11, when there was no option for making these short-term jumps," says Steve Farley, co-founder of Tucsonans for Sensible Transportation. "In large part. it offers a diversity of transportation modes that makes us less vulnerable."

Arizona is currently fighting to secure federal money for the darling of transportation advocates: light rail in Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa. But the commuter rail movement is seeing new resurgence. too.

"There is a movement underway for a commuter rail as opposed to light rail in both the East and West (Phoenix) Valley," says William Lindley, treasurer and past president of the Arizona Rail Passenger Association. Those commuter lines would connect Phoenix to such towns as Goodyear, Avendale, Buckey and others.

"Commuter rail is what you need to move people from the suburbs to the cities," says Lindley. "But inter-city rail is also needed to move people over longer distances."

Translation: A long over-due commuter train between Tucson and Phoenix is needed. Farley attended ADOT meetings in Tucson and says people all over the state are talking about commuter rail."

"It's time we got moving on that," says Farley.

In April of 1989, ARPA first proposed the use of existing railroad infrastructure to create a regional passenger rail system between Tucson and Phoenix with up to eight trains per day each way departing every two or three hours. Assuming that most people would be making same-day round trips, a 2000 study indicated there would be about 1,600 passengers riding daily between Phoenix and Tucson. Included is an estimate of "induced trips" that would not otherwise have been taken if rail service did not exist.

The 1998 Governor's Task Force on High Speed Rail found traffic and population growth in the Phoenix-Tucson corridor will demand additional capacity. Each day, 35,000 vehicles travel I-10, with that number expected to grow 67 percent by 2020.

To make things worse, the population in the Phoenix-Tucson area is expected to increase 50 percent over the next two decades. If no other actions are taken to relieve traffic congestion, an Arizona Department of Transportation report says I-10 in the area of the Interstate 8 junction will need to be widened to six lanes before 2005, and to eight lanes before 2020.

Enter the train possibility--a possibility that would take a lot of work.

"You can't just start running trains tomorrow," says Lindley. "You have to improve the tracks."

The first phase, a "minor upgrade" using the Union Pacific railroad right-of-way between Phoenix and Tucson for a conventional train, would cost more than $300 million to construct. It's no small sum, but attractive when compared to the I-10 widening cost of more than $1.4 billion.

The cost estimates are based on a study done by Kimley-Horn and Associates in 1998 and other resources in the Arizona Rail Passenger Association's files.

"My argument would be instead of putting several billions of dollars into expanding I-10, it makes more sense to first put in the train between Tucson and Phoenix," says Lindley. "You'd have an outlet for people to have another choice while the number of lanes are cut down during work on the highway. So it would be a construction mitigation thing."

"If they're reconstructing I-10, a 20-year process, why hasn't ADOT used some of the federal funds that are available for such things to develop a commuter rail on the tracks that are already parallel to the interstate and take some pressure off that?" asks Farley.

The potential funding sources include the Federal Transit Administration (50/50 split with the state) and Federal Highway Administration (congestion mitigation). The Legislature could also identify funding to support rail, and a private operator could partner and contribute a share.

Based on current Amtrak fares for similar city distances, projected fares of Phoenix to Tucson would be in the range of $23 each way.

The related support infrastructure needed to accommodate riders--think airport concessions-- would open endless economic development possibilities for every depot stop along the corridor for public-private partnerships, supporters say.

"Indeed, if you look at Tucson, Tempe, Mesa, Glendale, Gilbert, Chandler and Queen-Creek, their depot is right in their traditional downtown," says Lindley. "And that feeds right back into the revitalization of downtown."

A train would also help folks who don't drive.

"... One-third of Arizonans can't drive," said Lindley. "They are too young, too old, disabled, can't afford a car or are people who just don't want to drive."

ARPA recommended that this service, at a minimum, extend from Green Valley to Sun City West on the extreme northwest edge of the Phoenix in order to maximize the population base served.