Supporters celebrate board’s approval of passenger rail - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Supporters celebrate board’s approval of passenger rail

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Posted: Monday, March 21, 2011 6:24 pm | Updated: 8:32 pm, Sat Apr 30, 2011.

A statewide rail plan that would start by linking Tucson and Phoenix is a step toward giving Arizona residents a transportation option that would relieve traffic congestion and improve air quality, an interest group contends.

“We’ve seen that our roads are congested, our air is polluted and people are spending endless amounts of time in traffic,” said Serena Unrein, a public interest advocate for the Arizona Public Interest Research Group.

The group held a news conference Monday at an unused passenger railroad station in downtown Phoenix to celebrate a recent vote by the State Transportation Board to approve the statewide rail plan.

The plan outlines potential rail projects that would expand passenger and freight rail across Arizona and make the state eligible to compete for federal funds.

One component is a three-year study looking into the possibility of creating a rail route that would link Tucson and Phoenix. It eventually would expand to include Prescott and Flagstaff in the north and Sierra Vista and Douglas in the south, Unrein said.

She said an estimated 11,400 vehicles make the trip daily between Phoenix and Tucson and said that number is expected to triple by 2050.

Vincent Lopez, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, said during the news conference that he supports the passenger rail because it would improve public health.

“It’ll help combat health issues and respiratory problems that are a result of the pollution that comes from car transportation in the Valley,” he said.

Jade Meskill, co-founder of Gangplank, a Chandler-based company that helps entrepreneurs develop ideas using technology, is one of more than 70 business leaders who endorsed the rail plan with Unrein’s group. He said passenger rail would help with the commute between Chandler and Tucson.

“The drive on the I-10 is a long, grueling drive with all the trucks and the slow traffic,” he said. “In order to increase the opportunity for collaboration with our members in Chandler as well as in Tucson, the rail would be a really great option for us.”

Eric Emmert, spokesman for the East Valley Chambers of Commerce Alliance, said businesses would benefit from the construction of the rail.

“Businesses will gravitate toward station locations once the route is determined, and we’ll see development around those areas,” he said.

In a telephone interview, Laura Douglas, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Transportation, said approval of the statewide plan allows Arizona to begin outlining rail development projects that will provide additional transportation options.

“This is a plan that looks out several years into the future to determine what kind of transportation and what kind of infrastructure we need in Arizona 25 years from now,” she said in a telephone interview.

The task includes conducting studies to determine the best rail routes and the impact the construction might have on the environment.

“There’s a lot that needs to take place before the shovel hits the dirt, but we are certainly glad to be part of a discussion when it comes to rail,” she said.

Julie Engel, president and CEO of the Greater Yuma Economic Development Corporation, said she drives to Phoenix at least once a week and would like to see the passenger rail extended to Yuma.

“It would connect us with major metropolitan areas through an alternative mode of transportation that is a little bit greener than individual vehicles and possibly more efficient,” she said.

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