Tempe is poised to approve the Valley’s first modern streetcar, aiming to link the downtown to neighborhoods south of there via Mill Avenue.
The City Council will consider the 2.5-mile transit system on Thursday after three years of study. Tempe sees the $160 million streetcar as another way to spur economic development, especially downtown.
The line would loop through downtown on Mill and Ash avenues, which has little development along it now.
The streetcar could also get people downtown who wouldn’t take a bus there now, based on ridership habits of the Metro light-rail line that opened in late 2008. About 40 percent to 45 percent of those commuters never used buses, said Wulf Grote, Metro’s project development director.
“You’re getting a different market than exists with a bus system,” Grote said. “For some reason, there’s something about rail that seems to attract customers that wouldn’t otherwise use transit.”
The system is projected to carry 1,100-1,600 passengers a day when it opens in late 2016.
Transit officials have shared plans at about 50 public meetings and found support from business groups and many merchants along the route who believe it will make it easier for customers to reach them.
However, some people criticize the system as too costly, being too disruptive to construct or being more expensive than a bus system like Tempe’s Orbit neighborhood circulator. Others say the streetcar would duplicate Orbit or bus routes.
The Orbit buses are meant for neighborhoods and not larger routes, said Jyme Sue McLaren, Tempe’s deputy public works director. Orbit carries about 25 passengers while the streetcar accommodates 130.
Some Mill bus routes would be redundant with the streetcar, Grote said, and would be changed or eliminated when the new transit service begins.
Should Tempe approve the streetcar plan this week, regional transportation planners will sign off on the proposal later this year. The Federal Transit Administration should decide by next fall whether the project will receive up to $115 million in federal funding. That would account for about 70 percent of the cost.
By next summer, work will be under way to determine details such as station locations and designs, and whether to place the tracks in the center of the road or in the curb lane. Planners will also consider whether a park-and-ride lot is needed where the line ends at Southern Avenue. Unlike light-rail lots with 800 or more spaces, the streetcar would need 200 or 300 spaces — if a lot is needed at all, Grote said.
“There probably will be some demand, particularly for some special events and for ASU,” Grote said. “The magnitude of this demand is not understood at this point.”
The project won’t require the city to buy much land, except small parcels for electrical transformers and slivers of property for bus stops.
“The beauty of a streetcar project is it operates within the existing lane of traffic so we don’t expect any significant acquisition of real estate,” McLaren said.
The plan Tempe will consider includes recommending a rapid bus line on Rural Road through Tempe and Chandler. That’s also been studied for three years, but funding for the roughly $60 million project was withheld about a year ago. Studies showed high demand for that bus line and it was viewed favorably by many who attended public hearings on the streetcar and bus proposals.