Mass transit options have state leaders abuzz

Posted on January 16, 2007 | Type: In the News
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PHOENIX Trains, lanes and automobiles.

Those are the big options on the table as state leaders prepare for millions of new cars expected to clog our roads and freeways over the next two decades, pumping out tons more pollution to cloud the skies.

With rapid growth, lawmakers say transportation seems to be a hotter topic now than it has been in years.

Last week Gov. Janet Napolitano signed an executive order for the Arizona Department of Transportation to look into mass transit options.

The move has the mayors of Tucson and Phoenix, as well as some legislators, beaming about the possibility of a commuter train between the two cities. With the order, ADOT is putting the pedal to the metal to update a 1998 study on the train within the next 90 days.

Imagine: Hop on the train, take a seat, even open up your laptop to surf the Web and before you know it, you're in Phoenix for shopping, sports, business or a weekend at a spa. And never give a thought to wildly fluctuating, ever higher gas prices.

Likewise, Phoenicians could enjoy hiking, art galleries, summer resort discounts and the more relaxed ambiance Tucson has to offer.

Since the concept has been discussed for years and always resulted in nothing more than studies, some wonder if the excitement is premature.

This time, however, with the corridor between Tucson and Phoenix anticipating major growth over the next decade, advocates can already hear the sound of whistles blowing. But completion might be years away, even if it received the massive funding needed to get off the drawing board.

"We already have the need to expand I-10 to (six) full lanes between Phoenix and Tucson," said Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup. "But right behind that you're really looking at, what we need in the future is a way to move people between those populated areas and stay off the roads."

Walkup and Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon say they've been working together on the issue for three years and see the governor's order as a major turning point.?á

"There have been a lot of folks who have expressed interest to the governor. A lot of elected officials and basically the community transit organizations," said Shannon Scutari, the governor's policy adviser for growth and infrastructure.

But the governor is waiting to see what ADOT reports, and is interested in examining solutions statewide, Scutari said.

Walkup and Gordon were expecting a specific mention of the train in the governor's address. She didn't do that. Still, her call on the Department of Transportation to study a commuter train is "music to my ears," Gordon said.
The rail makes sense because "it's no longer city against city in this state," Gordon said. "It's region against the rest of the world."

In the 1998 report done by ADOT, the department concluded that at that time, a commuter train would cost at least $380 million.

All aboard?

Chantal Ottino seems like the ideal customer for a commuter train.

All too often, the 21-year-old University of Arizona accounting senior gets homesick for her family in north Phoenix. So at least once a month, you'll find her speeding up Interstate 10 in her black Ford Mustang.
Traffic is a constant problem.

"When there's an accident, it can get backed up forever, and then you're stuck," she says.

Still, when it comes to riding a train, "I'm torn," she says.

"I like to leave when I want to leave," Ottino says, and boarding a train at 9 p.m. in Downtown Tucson well, that could be dangerous.

Plus, "Leaving my car? That would be hard. How am I going to go to the clubs in Scottsdale?" she says, laughing.
And that's the big dilemma: How to get around in either city, both built around the car culture of the post-1950s.

"You would still have the same problems of congestion within Maricopa (County) and Tucson even if the rail moved you from point A to point B," said Darcy Olsen, president of the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix think tank that advocates smaller government.

But Gordon and Walkup both say that issue is working itself out already. Phoenix has started a light-rail system, and Walkup pointed to plans for a streetcar system in Downtown Tucson.

Still, Olsen says advocates "don't seem to take into account individual preferences, which is people prefer to drive. (Rail) is impractical and undesirable."

Steve Farley disagrees. Farley, a freshman Democratic state representative from Tucson and advocate of mass transit, says the best time to introduce a passenger railway is during expansion of Interstate 10, when people are looking for an alternative to avoid construction. Federal funds can help, he said.

As for demand, Farley points to a new state-subsidized railway in New Mexico, the "Rail Runner," which will eventually connect Santa Fe with Albuquerque.

"All the stars are aligning, with gas going through the roof and all the consequences of global warming issues and all the people in the business community seeing how much money is available from development along rail."

Funding conflicts

But funding for a railway may collide with money for road improvements and expansions.

A proposal to spend $450 million of the state's $650 million rainy day fund for road construction is already on the legislative table. Napolitano opposes dipping into those funds and instead wants to refinance bonds to pay for construction.

"I guess it all comes down to how you define emergency," Bob Burns, a Peoria Republican and chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said last week. "If we can stimulate the economy and help speed up our transportation construction and at least keep up with the flow of people who are coming here, maybe we can prevent an emergency."

Meanwhile, Democrats in the House have already started talking about an increase in the gas tax, while Olsen is pushing for the state to look at efforts elsewhere, like having a private developer build a toll highway, as is being done in Texas.

From all those choices, Farley is hopeful the train will be included in the mix of solutions. "I haven't really come across anyone who's against that," he said.

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