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Monday, December 07, 2009

Future commuter-rail system is envisioned for the Phoenix

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Enough people would board a train in the Phoenix area's suburbs that a future commuter-rail system would be as popular as some of the busiest lines in the West, new studies have found, The Arizona Republic reports. A trio of yearlong rail studies, in nearly final form, indicates commuter rail could carry almost 18,000 passengers a day by 2030. Planners at the Maricopa Association of Governments say, based on the findings, they favor a 105-mile, X-shaped system that could feature 33 stations and cost roughly $1.5 billion. That's a little more than the Valley's 20-mile, light-rail starter line. The commuter-rail network would use existing freight track through downtown Phoenix, with lines from Queen Creek to Buckeye and from Chandler to Wittmann. The northeast Valley, whose light-rail line lacks funding, would remain without commuter rail.

The studies are expected to be final in two months. MAG's board must then approve them and include them in the official regional-transportation plan before the agency can seek state or federal funding. The soonest a commuter rail could realistically open would be the second half of next decade. Planners say it takes three to five years to complete a system once the money has been found. There is no current funding.

Project consultant Richard Pilgrim, vice president at URS Corp., a major U.S. engineering firm, likens rail service to a bag of golf clubs: "If light rail is a 5 iron, this is more like a 3 wood."

It's no surprise that the busiest line would be in the southeast Valley. The far-flung edge of the area is growing quickly and drives to work sites are long. Independent Metro light-rail studies have shown people will drive for miles from east Mesa and Gilbert to board that system. MAG's rail study shows the busiest station would be near Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, which is slated to be one of state's biggest employment centers.

The response has been positive in a series of briefings with about 200 city, community and business leaders this year, says David Schwartz, whose partnership, Goodman Schwartz, was hired to conduct public outreach.

Based on MAG's computerized travel models, the tracks to Queen Creek, Chandler and Wittmann would each pick up more passengers per mile in 2030 than the national average. By that measure, the Queen Creek track would outperform Los Angeles' Metrolink threefold.

Planners favor a conventional double-decker train, capable of speeds of 79 mph. Each car could carry 130 people with ample seating, tables and electrical outlets for laptop computers and communications devices. MAG says trains would be five to seven cars long and would run about every 30 minutes during rush hour. The lines are relatively short. They range from 18 miles in south Tempe to 36 miles along Grand Avenue.

The estimated cost to convert existing freight lines into ones shared by passenger trains runs from $10 million per mile in the West Valley to $18 million in Tempe. That would include all the stations, trains, signals and engineering of street crossings. By comparison, a commuter-rail line between Tacoma and Seattle, which carries more passengers on each train than any system in the country, cost $18 million per mile. The light-rail system here cost $70 million per mile.

The commuter-rail vision faces two big obstacles: lack of money and obtaining right-of-way from freight-railroad companies.

Rail funds would have to come from a new voter initiative, federal sources or a combination of the two. Federal money almost always needs to be matched and has strings that can mean delays.

Even if money can be found, officials would have to negotiate use of existing freight track. Four of the five Valley tracks are owned by Union Pacific. The other, along Grand Avenue, is owned by BNSF.

In other states, rail agencies had to negotiate with the freight giants, whose primary concern was keeping tracks open to haul freight for their clients. Those negotiations involve paying for time slots on freight track, buying track or right-of-way and compensating the railroads for losses due to station and trackside construction.

"These are private railroads," MAG planner Kevin Wallace said. "If they don't want to play with us, they don't have to."

The bright spot is that Union Pacific runs just two trains a day between downtown Phoenix and Buckeye, even though the company considers it a "core line," Wallace said. That pales next to the heavily trafficked transcontinental track that runs through the town of Maricopa to the south.