Two years before construction starts on a Tempe streetcar, its proponents say recent developments could substantially change how the transit system takes shape.
Rapidly advancing battery technology means the streetcar could run without overhead wires when the Mill Avenue line reaches downtown.
And it may not be just a Tempe line. It could more than double in size to reach the new Chicago Cubs complex in Mesa.
Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman said extending the proposed system on Rio Salado Parkway would jump-start development much like Metro light rail spurred $4 billion worth of projects in his city.
He likened the potential to what happened when the Interstate highway system opened in undeveloped areas and triggered massive growth at key exits. He expects the same where the streetcar would stop on what is now largely undeveloped property.
“That’s some of the most valuable real estate in the state ... and right now it’s lined with oleanders,” Hallman said.
The 2.1-mile, $130 million line now is planned on Mill, from Southern Avenue to Rio Salado. The planned Cubs stadium is more than 3 miles away from downtown Tempe.
“Mesa’s very excited about the prospect of that happening,” said Tempe Councilwoman Shana Ellis.
She’s studied the streetcar as the chairwoman of the Metro rail transit agency and said its construction would be less disruptive than the light-rail line that opened in 2008. When a line was built in Portland, Ore., the track was installed at a pace of three blocks every three weeks.
“Construction is a piece of cake and I know some of you will find that hard to believe,” she said.
The potential extension to Mesa wasn’t on Tempe’s radar just a couple years ago, Hallman said. The Cubs picked the site only last year. Tempe also asked about not having overhead wires a couple years ago and was told the technology was being researched. Just this year various manufacturers have announced they’re developing various battery systems that can travel several miles on battery power, Hallman said.
Transit planners got a look at a hybrid streetcar Tuesday at the Metro maintenance facility, where Japanese manufacturer Kinkisharyo ran a 65-foot-long vehicle on a test track. The streetcar will be on public display 8 a.m. to noon Sunday at the Veterans Way/College Metro station in downtown Tempe.
Metro CEO Steve Banta will choose a manufacturer next year. Tempe’s system will need some overhead wires but could avoid them at least in downtown, he said.
Ditching the wires would save more than $5 million a mile in construction costs and $600,000 a year in maintenance, said Kinkisharyo project manager Bill Kleppinger. Local transit planners cautioned the batteries would offset some savings because they’d need to be replaced periodically.
The streetcar shares a lane of traffic with vehicles and doesn’t require widening roads. Banta said several urban areas such as downtown Mesa could prove good candidates for future streetcar lines.
“I think the streetcar is an appropriate mode for many cities, not just Tempe,” he said. “It really is something you can shoehorn into any community.”
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