Pricey gasoline and farflung developments are fueling interest in a new way of moving people around the Valley: A commuter rail system.
Regional transportation planners will kick off a commuter rail study in January, following up on research three years ago that got a rough feel for costs and logistical issues. But perhaps the most significant finding was public reaction: Nobody cared. The 2002 study sat on a shelf until recent developments triggered new interest.
Now, mayors and lawmakers from the West Valley and East Valley are promoting commuter rail as a way to get their constituents to downtown Phoenix in less time than it takes on congested freeways.
A commuter rail system would have little in common with the 20-mile, $1.3 billion Metro light-rail line under construction from west Mesa to Phoenix. Key differences include:
• Speed. Commuter rail is faster, though it’s impossible to predict what speed to expect on a Valley system. Light rail’s average speed is projected at 20 mph.
• Number of stations. Light-rail stations are typically a half-mile to 1 mile apart, while commuter stations are often 5 miles or farther apart.
• Equipment. Light rail is powered from electric lines above the track. Locomotives using fossil fuels power commuter trains.
• Tracks. Light rail in the Valley has its own set of tracks in the middle of major roads, but commuter rail would run on existing rail lines.
• Average trip length: Roughly 25 miles for commuter rail versus 5 miles for light rail.
Any type of rail system poses enormous costs, but the Valley has a huge advantage in that existing rail lines run almost exactly where transit demand is highest.
Commuter rail seems almost too easy a solution to the Valley’s transportation woes. And perhaps it is.
This type of system would require difficult lease or purchase negotiations with railroad owners. The existing lines have little room for any new service because they’re already at capacity with freight. And there’s the cost, about $2.6 billion.
But as commute times get longer, subdivisions sprout farther out and long-term fuel prices remain high, officials say they will forge ahead.
"The big run-up of gasoline prices has caused people to rethink the role of public transit systems," said Eric Anderson, the transportation director for the Maricopa Association of Governments.
Supporters in the East Valley include some of the most vocal critics of the light-rail system now under construction. Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, is one of those champions.
"If you take the rail lines that exist and you lay them out, it’s almost like they were made for the population growth that’s going on in the Valley," said Verschoor.
In the East Valley, Union Pacific railroad tracks run through Queen Creek, Gilbert, Mesa, Tempe and Chandler. They go to downtown Phoenix, where other lines follow Interstate 10 in the West Valley. The Burlington Northern-Santa Fe railroad owns tracks along Grand Avenue in Phoenix.
Transportation officials have had only preliminary discussions with railroad officials. The rail owners allow or even operate similar services in other places, which Anderson said is encouraging. Also, the railroads have 100 feet of right-of-way, enough to add additional lines along most or all of the route.
But Valley railroads are overwhelmed with freight cargo and would need parallel tracks to handle passengers, Anderson said. Also, some existing tracks are too rough for passenger service and would have to be rebuilt.
Nobody knows who would pay for the new tracks, passenger stations, trains or the operational costs. Any fares likely would cover a only fraction of the cost, as no commuter service in the nation pays for itself.
"I think people believe that there’s railroad ties there, so why can’t we put a train on them and run people back and forth," Anderson said. "It’s not quite that simple."
Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said the railroad is open to passenger service but that it can’t compromise its freight service. Freight volume has grown rapidly in several years and is testing the system’s capacity, Davis said.
Anderson speculated officials would build commuter rail service in phases. Early tests would gauge demand and run only in morning and evening rush periods at first, he said. Those trains might share mostly existing lines and new lines would slowly be added.
"Realistically, if we had it up and running by 2020, and not just a demonstration project but something we could build on long-term, I think that would be a big accomplishment given where we are today," Anderson said.
It could take until 2040 to get all-day service and a full system of separate tracks.
Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker likes the idea of commuter rail, but said previous studies showed it would be more expensive than other transit options.
Hawker senses support is stronger in the West Valley because of congestion along Grand Avenue, but he would like to explore a commuter rail line that could bring residents from the far East Valley to the future eastern end of the light-rail line near Dobson Road and Main Street.
Hawker said he’ll support a system that’s cost-effective, "especially if it would be done with private money."