My first experience with light rail came living in San Diego in the early 1980s. One segment linked downtown with the border crossing at San Ysidro. It was popular and uncontroversial. "I didn't think one of these could run without graffiti all over it," I heard a visitor from then dysfunctional New York exclaim of the new, bright red trainsets. As a reporter, I wrote about the Trolley, especially the ambitious expansion plans. San Diego is the most Republican of California's big cities, but the light-rail system was begun under Pete Wilson, a mediocre U.S. senator, bad California governor, but stellar San Diego mayor (he was also, along with developer Ernest Hahn, the father of the spectacularly revived downtown). Today, the San Diego Trolley extends 53 miles on three routes.
Then I lived in Denver, where the city started a segment downtown. It too, was popular and widely embraced. Now it comprises 39 miles with another 12 due in two years. I was in Charlotte for the planning of the now-operating Lynx light-rail, a relatively modest 10 miles, but more is in the works. It was the first modern light-rail system in the Old South and, again, widely supported, especially by the business leadership and developers who built hundreds of millions of dollars of projects near the line. Similar success happened in other cities, especially Dallas (!), with its 72-mile system and clammoring of suburbs to get the next line.
The story didn't play out that way in Phoenix. Yes, we built it, you bastards. But it's also time to take stock.
Light rail failed, however, in one critical selling point: Economic development. Ride the 20-mile line and watch the empty, blighted land go by. It's astounding and depressing. As one of the system's biggest supporters, who was on the receiving end of a remarkable trail of hate and threats as a result, I must own up to this failure. It's not a small thing. Employment, capital formation and development have been sucked away from the central city since the 1990s by sprawl. Light rail was supposed to be a key element in reversing this. Except for ASU, it hasn't happened. As a result, the system will not perform as it could, nor will it deliver the economic boost seen in the other cities I mention.
Why? First, metro Phoenix had reached a tipping point where it had virtually no major corporate stewards committed to the center city; the economic powers that remained were developers and speculators investing anywhere but. They lacked either the interest or the skillsets to do transit-oriented development and bring in tenants (the success of One Lexington shows what happens when an owner has the capital and expertise for such a project, but in an area this size there should be a dozen or more such examples). Second, policies continue to encourage land banking. Third, central Phoenix lacks any robust, effective economic development authority; Tempe and Mesa are conflicted about how to support their cores. Fourth, the potential jobs engine of the Phoenix biosciences campus, near light rail, was built far too slowly. Fifth, the Gordon administration dissolved into goo. Skip Rimsza had his faults but, with a push from Tempe, he got light rail going. Phil Gordon blurted out something in a speech about "The Opportunity Corridor," which would have been heavily focused on the rail line. But it was just that a blurt, never followed up with any strategy or action. Finally, it appears Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa are backing a $20 million fund to jump-start development, but it won't work unless the issues mentioned above are fixed.
Given the trajectory of state and national politics, extensions of light rail may well never happen. Republicans hate transit even more than they hate liberals. Tragic, stupid, self-defeating, yes. But it is the new reality, until $10-a-gallon gasoline might change some minds. So the question will be whether Phoenix, especially, can reinvent itself along this spine.
For some light-rail background, read on:
Phoenix light rail's timing was poor. Had it been built starting in the 1980s, it might have headed off the worst of the sprawl, saved much center-city employment and spurred investment. By the time Metro's serious planning began, it had to overcome a highly developed right-wing anti-transit propaganda machine. Voters in Tempe and Phoenix supported it, with the loudest opponents coming from the exurbs and far suburbs. Nevertheless, even their most outlandish claims received respectful coverage. This despite examples nationwide of light-rail success. The climate of reaction and ignorance was remarkable.
Many wonder why light rail wasn't built first, say, to Ahwatukee. In order to qualify for federal funding, the starter line had to run along the most dense transit corridor. That meant the red-line bus, which I regularly rode and can testify to its 120 percent of capacity, but most critics didn't. They were the ones who said, "nobody's gonna ride it." Wrong. That was never in doubt because of the routing. It always surprised me how many Phoenicians had never been on a city bus. Thus, for a starter line, transit-virgin suburbanites would not have been an effective target demographic.
The success of light rail, as in other cities, increased the appetite for new lines. These were approved in Prop. 400 a few years ago, along with freeways that should not have been approved. The light-rail segments will probably never be built. In fact, Phoenix also needs commuter rail (heavy rail), and lines of the old Southern Pacific and Santa Fe run to all the right places. As has been shown elsewhere, governments can work with freight railroads to increase capacity for commuter trains. These would run faster, with fewer stops, into the core (I still wish Union Station could be that, as is happening in Denver with its aggressive commuter rail system). The commuter failure goes back to the defeat of ValTrans in the 1980s, a crippling turning-point. Streetcars can be more effective in smaller, dense areas, as well (think Portland's Pearl District line). Maybe Phoenix can pay for a Maryvale light-rail line itself. That would be a good start. Extending to Metrocenter and trying to get Glendale to buy in is a fool's errand.
The situation is Seattle (some will ask) is this: Excellent Sounder commuter train service north to Everett and south to Tacoma, from downtown's King Street Station, which is undergoing restoration. (There's also the highly successful, state-funded Amtrak Cascades, multiple daily trains from Seattle to Portland and Vancouver, B.C.; two Amtrak long-distance trains, the Coast Starlight and Empire Builder have King Street as their terminus). Sound Transit Link light rail opened its first, 14-mile route from the airport to downtown soon after Phoenix. It's a very nice system. But extensions, to the UW and the east side suburbs, are moving way too slow. Seattle defeated what sounds like a great system in the '70s and fought about options for years before building this initial segment. There's a modern streetcar running from downtown into the booming South Lake Union biomedical and corporate center. And, of course, Seattle has amazing bus service.
Interestingly, Phoenicians who don't really know LA don't realize it now has one of the nation's most extensive networks of commuter and light rail, and is quick-stepping several projects including the long-needed "subway to the sea" under Wilshire Boulevard. It's about half the size of the system torn up in the 1940s and 1950s, still...
Buses will never be an adequate solution. I know that more than ever living in Seattle, where every kind of person rides the bus, but the vehicles get stuck in traffic, jammed up at bus stops and can be overcrowded and difficult to get into. For many, a bus will always conjure "down market" while light rail is inviting, clean, efficient and has its own rails. Cities will never be able to clear enough bus-only lanes to make a bus-only system work. Seattle learned this the hard way, and has ended up years behind Portland, a model of light rail. The solution is multi-modal: light rail, commuter rail, street car, bus, and, if you want the hassle, a single-occupancy vehicle.