Phoenix to Tucson Passenger Rail

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The Arizona Department of Transportation is studying a number of options for passenger rail service from Phoenix to Tucson. ADOT has identified several potential routes and is now asking for public input on those options. Sean Holstege, a transportation reporter for The Arizona Republic, provides the latest details on this story.

Ted Simons: Good Evening and Welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. The Arizona department of transportation is studying the concept of passenger rail service from Phoenix to Tucson. The agency has identified six possible routes and posted those options online. Adot is taking public comment on those options and here with more is Sean Holstege. He covers transportation issues for the Arizona Republic and has been following this story. Thanks for joining us. Where do we stand?

Sean Holstege: Adot has taken their planning farther than the state has ever taken rail planning in the past. They are asking the public for input on six options to get passengers between Phoenix and Tucson. It's more than that, beyond Phoenix, out into the west valley down to Tucson airport. By roughly this time next year, end of next year, they should have those options narrowed down to one and ready to proceed with the real planning, the real engineering, design, all the stuff that makes a project happen.

Ted Simons: we're looking at options here. The last one that's bright there, that's the one that seems to be getting the most attention up through Mesa and Gateway airport.

Sean Holstege: That's right. The six options generally either follow I-10 or the versions off to the side, alternate routes to the side. Three go through the east valley. The most favorable so far based on some real preliminary criteria is that option that goes through Williams Gateway airport. It would take all three airports and extend up to surprise and the west valley and Buckeye.

Ted Simons: That's interesting because a lot of I-10 up near the valley is avoided on that particular option. I think people think it's going to parallel I-10. It doesn't until you get down by, what, Eloy?

Sean Holstege: Picacho. Part of reason for that is the projections for traffic demand. They did a study looking at passenger rail, commuter rail, different service, shorter hop, more stations, getting people to work from suburbs. Found that it would be so popular in the east valley it would rival the system in Los Angeles, which is a pretty robust system now. Adot is dovetailing into that plan to capture the same riders and do basically a two for one. Get people to work, to Tucson.

Ted Simons: what about existing freight lines?

Sean Holstege: There's the wrinkle. Some follow freight lines. Some don't. Most of the freight lines south of Phoenix are union Pacific. Union Pacific is very guarded about sharing its track with any passenger service. That's something that would need to be negotiated. It's one of the reasons a lot of rail advocates in Arizona talk about the need for statewide leadership on the issue. In the western states where similar systems have been introduced recently, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, it took a governor and it took a lot of state money.

Ted Simons: what are we hearing from state lead centers.

Sean Holstege: Very little. Passenger rail -- the state legislators, some of them have been critical in the past of light-rail when it was introduced in the valley a few years ago. Less critical of passenger rail, commuter rail and inner city rail. There are a variety of reasons but there have been no bills funding any money to make it happen. No leadership taking a lead.

Ted Simons: You mention money. Cost projections, a billion?

Sean Holstege: A billion to two. Mag estimated its valley wide system a billion.2. Hundreds of millions up towards $2 billion.

Ted Simons: where would the funds come from? Are we talking about a tax increase generally, tax incremental, user -- all options on the table?

Sean Holstege: All are on the table, none exist at the moment. Some involve using prop 204 tax that would if voters choose to accept that in November there's up to $100 million a year in the Kitty for transportation but it competes with highways and other uses. Private money has been floated. That's how the French built their bullet train system in the '70s. There is talk of a new prop 400 locally, there's talk of a three-County proposition to build systems like this. Any and all.

Ted Simons: Yes. As far as -- I read your story something like between three and 11 stops would be involved here.

Sean Holstege: be clear what we're talking about, only between Phoenix and Tucson. There's another stop to the airport and all the stops in the west valley if they want to marry the two systems.

Ted Simons: couple of hours?

Sean Holstege: 128, 130 minutes.

Ted Simons: those stops, a viewer wanted to know about this, were those -- where those stops are located obviously that's still rough. Is there an idea to get some development planning going quickly so something can -- little towns even, something can grow around these stops?

Sean Holstege: There's no stated objective yet, but that is part of the thinking. I asked that question of the planners at Adot. They said that will be part of the next rounds once they have narrowed down the list to one or two. It will start with two or three in the spring, narrow it down to one by the end of the year. Once they get to that point then they will start doing the heavy lifting. Planning the exact route, exact stations, planning what happens around those stations. If you develop around a station you get more riders so it's certainly in the interest of whoever develops this system to create that growth. One reason they are proposing this is anticipated growth in what they call the sun corridor. Pinal County talking about 800% increase in population by 2050. It would make more sense for our traffic patterns and mobility if you cluster them around those stations. That's happened in other western states.

Ted Simons: I would imagine existing clusters are looked at as potential stops.

Sean Holstege: Absolutely. That's why the east valley routes look so good to the Adot planners.

Ted Simons: There were six light-rail -- don't want to say light-rail. Six rail lines here options. There's also, what, speedy bus service express bus? What's that about?

Sean Holstege :By law in order to get federal funding and approval you have to study all the alternatives including a different mode, which is bus transportation or doing nothing at all. Reality is we have private bus systems now. We have jitneys to Tucson, greyhound, those carriers that are not really heavily traveled. That option was dismissed when some mag committees looked at it. The other is doing nothing. Given the kind of projections,five and a half hour drive to Tucson by 2050 they say, that doesn't look realistic either. So we're really down to the six rail option. Legal requirement.

Ted Simons: So that's what that's all about. Once again I want to remind the viewer Adot really is looking for public input. That will make a difference.

Sean Holstege: absolutely. This is the child of previous public hearings last year and state online polls. The closing date is the 15th of December. You can comment in person at some meetings they posted, or by mail.

Ted Simons: we have the online address there. Last question, it seems like we have been down this track before if you will. Does this look to you like something concrete, something is going on here?

Sean Holstege: This is a real plan. This is plan is much farther down the tracks than any other plan Arizona has ever taken before. It's a necessary step to get federal funding. In previous iterations they couldn't even ask for the money because they hadn't done enough of the preliminary work. We're past that now. Whether we have the money to build it is a whole other issue.

Ted Simons: We'll bring you back at a later date. Good stuff. We appreciate it.

Sean Holstege:Transportation Reporter, The Arizona Republic;

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