The first study that could actually put commuter rail on track in the Valley is speeding ahead.
The idea of commuter rail as a mass-transit option in the Valley has been discussed for years, but those involved in the Commuter Rail Strategic Plan say they are working on a plan that will lay the groundwork and create a timeline to make commuter rail a reality.
The current study area shows potential commuter rail following existing railroad lines connecting northern Pinal County through Florence, Queen Creek and Gilbert into Phoenix as well as connecting the West Valley cities of Surprise and Buckeye to the employment centers.
“They have been talking about this for a long time,” said Kevin Wallace, transit program manager with the Maricopa Association of Governments. “But in the past couple of years the situation has changed a whole lot because of growth, traffic congestion and energy costs. Commuter rail is becoming much more of a viable option than it has been in the past.”
Looking at the growth numbers in northern Pinal County alone, from 2000 to 2007 the population has grown from 183,400 to 296,500, with half of the county’s residents commuting to jobs in the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas.
The population is expected to increase by 146 percent by 2030.
MAG is leading the study, which started in February, and is funding it along with the Arizona Department of Transportation for $300,000.
The work has brought together a variety of stakeholders and diverse political interests in Maricopa County and northern Pinal County.
The group working on the commuter rail plan will meet Sept. 12. The final meeting will be in late October and then project consultants will start preparing a draft plan which should be out by the end of the year.
Wallace said MAG’s Regional Council could adopt the plan in January or February.
Wallace said their work will determine how to implement a commuter-rail system that would connect the Valley’s outskirts to job centers in the Phoenix area. ADOT is looking at future expansion to Wickenburg to the north and Tucson to the south.
The planning, being done through a series of meetings, will address physical, operational and financial challenges and what needs to be done to overcome them, Wallace said.
He said commuter-rail lines in the western United States have varied in the amount of time to plan and construct, from as little as three years to as many as 10.
“We’re looking for the first project, maybe a 20- or 30-mile stretch, to get something on the ground and that will get the system going,” Wallace said. “It’s hard to give an exact number of years.”
Some issues to overcome include right-of-way acquisition, connectivity to other public transportation, costs, roadway crossings and dealing with established railroad operations which are primarily cargo in the Valley.
Roc Arnett, president and CEO of the East Valley Partnership, said the longtime discussions have identified existing railroad corridors as areas to be used for commuter rail, but one issue being resolved slowly is connectivity once people get to the city.
“Nothing was in place,” Arnett said. “Now, in downtown Phoenix, they could walk a block, catch the light rail and go all kinds of places and also there would be a connection at the airport.”
Wallace said the commuter rail would be a “higher speed service.”
Like an exact timeline on the project, he said, the cost of it also is hard to pin down.
“It’s about $10 million per mile to start,” he said. “But you can certainly spend more than $10 million per mile.”
Johnson Ranch resident Mack Lake said he thinks commuter rail will help relieve traffic congestion in his area. He said if the plans have commuter rail going through the Williams Gateway Airport area in Mesa, it could help Pinal County commuters reach jobs there, too.