Light-rail officials said they’re exploring a $1.7 billion plan to speed construction because the trains have proven so popular in other states.
Valley METRO Rail is scheduled to begin service on a 20-mile segment in December 2008, but rail officials said ridership demands could make it worthwhile to add another 37 miles five years ahead of schedule. The extensions are now slated to be finished by 2025, which could be moved up to 2020 if Arizona loans METRO money to speed things up.
Talk of speeding up construction could seem premature given that nobody knows whether Valley commuters will embrace or reject the initial $1.4 billion system. But METRO spokeswoman Marty Mc-Neil said planners expect high ridership because passengers have overwhelmed other new rail lines.
“In the Western cities that have built light-rail systems, virtually every one of those systems have far surpassed ridership projections,” she said.
Scottsdale and several West Valley cities are considering whether they should add to a system that will initially include Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa. Critics have already blasted the proposal, saying it costs more to move people on light rail than on buses or freeways. That kind of criticism led to a requirement that before METRO can expand, it must pass an audit on whatever system already exists. The speedup plans don’t clash with the required audits, officials said.
It takes so long to plan, engineer and build light-rail lines that METRO couldn’t speed up anything planned before 2015, said Eric Anderson, the transportation director for the Maricopa Association of Governments.
A speedup would affect the East Valley on an extension from central Phoenix to the Paradise Valley Mall area. METRO is considering a 12-mile addition to open in 2025, but that could move to 2020.
Other East Valley additions would be done before a speedup would help, including a Main Street line in Mesa from roughly Dobson Road to Mesa Drive and a two-mile line on Rural Road in Tempe.
The bulk of any acceleration would take place in the West Valley, including one along Interstate 10.
McNeil said the potential speedup isn’t necessarily a push by METRO. Rather, she said the agency is responding to a request by Gov. Janet Napolitano to have a statewide plan for faster construction of highway, bus, commuter rail and other transit projects.
“This was never intended to be a proposal, but rather data the governor could use with ADOT to evaluate needs and desires,” McNeil said, referring to the Arizona Department of Transportation.