"Roads? Where we're going we don't need roads."
The South Central line is one of the most promising additions to the Phoenix light-rail system (WBIYB). City Council has approved a plan to fast-track the five-mile extension to Baseline Road by 2023. But a crucial piece of the project isn't on the table, and as far as I know nobody is discussing it.
This line needs a slight rerouting: It needs to jog over the Third Avenue on Washington, then run south to Lincoln Street before moving back to Central for the journey south. This would provide two big benefits, one immediate and the other long term.
By shifting west, it would pick up large numbers of riders at the government centers of the city and county. But the big enchilada is that the line would pass just to the east of Union Station, which was Phoenix's intercity passenger rail depot until the 1990s.
Light rail might need a tunnel under the current Union Pacific line, but it would be worth it. The payoff would be connecting light rail with a reborn Union Station as the hub for a region-wide commuter train system as well as the return of Amtrak to Tucson and Los Angeles.
If Phoenix fails to do this, it will be a blunder to be regretted for decades to come.
San Diego's lovely Santa Fe depot is busier than ever before, handling Amtrak Surfliner trains to Los Angeles, as well as Coaster commuter trains that connect downtown with seaside communities all the way north to Oceanside (where it connects with LA's Metrolink). Right on the other side of this station is light rail: the San Diego Trolley's red, blue, and green lines.
In Denver, historic Union Station has been magnificently reborn to handle intercity, commuter, and light-rail trains. This is on top of a 2014 restoration that added top restaurants, bars, shops, and a boutique hotel. The New York Times reported:
The station is the focal point of a $500 million project to reorder Denver’s transit system, creating a hub for Amtrak, additional light-rail lines throughout the city (three are expected to open this year) and local and national bus services. Currently an estimated 30,000 commuters and visitors use Union Station daily. With the introduction of the new airport train, named the University of Colorado A Line, management expects traffic will climb to 104,000 people daily by year’s end.
Seattle's King Street station has been beautifully restored. It handles intercity trains — long distance to San Francisco, LA, and Chicago, as well as the Cascades service between Vancouver, B.C., and Portland and Eugene, Ore. Step across the street and you can catch the Link light rail.
It's hard to believe that the nation's sixth- (or fifth-) largest city is incapable of using these models to reclaim one of the most beautiful buildings in the Southwest, which has been used to house telecom equipment for Sprint (which had its origins as a unit of the Southern Pacific Railroad).
For all the utility of light rail, it works best on short jaunts, especially in more dense areas where transit-oriented development has sprung up. For a metro as far flung as Phoenix, commuter trains are also needed.
As I have written before, in the 2000s I took part in meetings in Buckeye to help plan the town/city's future. According to a survey of Buckeye residents, the No. 1 thing they wanted was commuter-train service to Phoenix. Not freeways. Trains. And it's easy to see why. Commuter trains move fast, have limited stops, and riders can read or work (free wireless) on their journeys.
Phoenix is far behind here, not least because the Real Estate Industrial Complex wants to keep building freeways, including the shameful boondoggle around the South Mountains. Miami, Orlando, Austin, Nashville, Albuquerque, Minneapolis and Portland all have commuter trains. Salt Lake City is the center of a 90-mile commuter system. the FrontRunner, that reaches 80 percent of the state's population. A place doesn't have to be New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. In the Bay Area, the popular CalTrain service from San Jose to San Francisco is being electrified for faster, even more environmentally friendly service.
Railroad rights of way are already in place between downtown Phoenix and Glendale, Peoria, Surprise, Sun City, and Wickenburg to the northwest; Avondale, Goodyear, and Buckeye to the west; Tempe, Mesa, Chandler, and Gilbert to the southeast.
Critics, who are usually so loving Arizona when a proposal involves extending the sprawl status quo, immediately turn grumpy about rail. "These lines are owned by the BNSF and Union Pacific railroads, successors to the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific, and they won't allow commuter trains on their rails!"
In fact, freight traffic to Phoenix is stagnant-to-declining and virtually non-existent on some lines. Phoenix no longer ships food and air conditioners to the nation. The issues are simply capacity and political will. For example, the Sounder trains in the Puget Sound region operate on tracks of the freight railroads. California's popular Capitol Corridor trains run on the UP. The railroad was helpful to establishing Salt Lake's FrontRunner. This is true of many other commuter systems. Government (which has spent decades subsidizing cars) needs to pay to expand rail capacity and help with maintenance. Political leaders need to learn from other jurisdictions on working with the freight railroads. Some lines could probably be purchased outright from the UP.
I write about plenty of opportunities that Phoenix will never grasp, even though they are needed there and proven by experience elsewhere. But this is one that shouldn't be dismissed as dreamy. Alter the South Central line to run past Union Station. It can be done.
Read more stories about passenger rail, transit, downtowns, and the center-city renaissance in America — all here in Rogue's City Desk report.