The rail transit issue in the Valley has been almost hopelessly confused by definitions. It’s time to begin straightening out the confusion, and the Tribune’s Garin Groff took a big step in that direction on Saturday with his story on growing support among Valley leaders for commuter rail.
The definition confusion is between commuter rail and light rail. Almost all of the Valley leaders who bitterly opposed the light-rail component of the November 2004 transportation tax ballot measure support commuter rail. That is because commuter and light rail are worlds apart both in objective and cost-efficiency.
In a few years the Valley will have a light-rail line running from Mesa through Tempe and downtown Phoenix to the west side. It will run mainly along Valley streets and mix with auto and truck traffic. It will make frequent stops and its average speed with be about 20 mph.
Commuter rail is a different animal. It generally runs on standard-gauge train tracks, has limited or no contact with street traffic, makes few stops and is fast. It lives up to its name: It’s all about getting commuters to their destinations as quickly as possible.
There long has been some support for commuter rail in the Valley, largely because the backbone already is in place. Union Pacific’s tracks run from beyond the far south East Valley to the far West Valley. As the East Valley’s growth explodes through Gilbert, Queen Creek and into Pinal County, those tracks stand out as running right down the middle of that growth corridor.
For people moving into the far south East Valley who work in places such as Mesa and Phoenix, there’s no commuting alternative to crowded streets and freeways. Clearly, we must continue building and improving those streets and freeways, but we also must study the feasibility of commuter rail to eventually handle much of the load.
As Groff reported, the big obstacles right now are cost and winning Union Pacific’s cooperation. The East Valley’s continuing population boom will expand our tax base, which in turn will lower the fiscal obstacle. Dollars and political clout could persuade railway officials to come to the table.
Realistically, commuter rail is still at least a decade in the future. But now is the time to begin planning and pushing for it. Ignoring its immense potential to move people quickly and efficiently in our burgeoning metropolis would be folly.