The National Catholic Review
Karen Sue Smith
Image

Last December my family joined thousands of others who stood in long snaked lines to ride the Phoenix Metro Light Rail on its opening day. A New Yorker since 1984 who regularly rides buses, subways and trains, I wasn’t sure what a “light rail” was, and imagined it to be a miniature train like you’d find in a theme park. When a full-sized, sleek dual-car train pulled up to the platform, I laughed out loud at my puny imaginings.

That free ride was not only fun, it was a family first. No one in my family, which moved to Phoenix from Ohio in the 1950s, had ever taken public transportation in the city before. Phoenix has always been a car town. Like most Phoenicians we found the words “public transit” foreign; translated, the term meant “slow, infrequent bus to nowhere.” Our town was practically cabless and busless and had no trolleys ot commuter trains. Every family needed a car, and every business needed a parking lot—a recipe that led to sprawl (500 square miles of it), congestion and pollution. None of that has changed.

But the city itself is changing. With over four million people in its metropolitan area, Phoenix is consciously constructing an urban core. Phoenix has recognized the potential of its downtown to attract tourists and residents who find appealing the rich cultural offerings—the museums, library, civic center, sports arenas, galleries, theaters and cafés. A decade ago, the city designated particular downtown neighborhoods as “historical districts” and offered owners tax incentives to restore their homes. That success spawned new apartment construction nearby, well-attended Friday night “art walks” and street fairs. Then Arizona State University built a spanking new campus downtown, diverting some of its 67,000 students there, with student housing and commercial attractions to follow. The light rail could pull the tourists, students and residents together into one vibrant city center.

Constructing the light rail entailed risk and controversy. Laying track down the city’s main boulevard required uprooting the tall, picturesque palms that lined both sides of Central Ave. But the train promises more benefits than the palms gave. While the initial rail route covers just 20 miles, the train links with a number of buses and park-and-ride lots and moves people seven days a week from a shopping mall on the city’s west side down Central Ave., across the Salt River to Tempe (where the main A.S.U. campus is located), ending in Mesa, Arizona’s third largest city. If the public uses it, the light rail could invigorate Phoenix. It could also empower a workforce of low-income residents who have been all but trapped until now inside this city ringed by highways.

Just as the financial crisis hit, Phoenix launched its light rail. A shrinking tax base could adversely affect its progress. Then again, the rail might become a transportation lifeline. Once Phoenix was a set of suburbs without a center. Today, with a real public transportation system in place and a plan to develop its core, Phoenix is finally coming of age as a city.

During a visit last month I took a free shuttle bus from the Phoenix International Airport to the closest light rail stop, where a handful of others and I bought $1.25 tickets from a vending machine. We waited 10 minutes for a train at midday. As diverse passengers boarded, I noticed that several hung their bicycles onto the overhead racks in a bicycle car. I disembarked at stop No. 9 and pulled my rolling suitcase two blocks to my sister’s house. It was a breeze.

This jaded New Yorker and longtime public transit advocate even felt a twinge of envy that any trip from the airport could be so quick, so cheap and so easy.

Karen Sue Smith is editorial director of America.

Comments

Randy Luethye | 6/23/2009 - 7:59pm

LightRailNetwork.com identifies 'consumer friendly' businesses near every station in Phoenix for locals and visitors to find what they need. Over the past year, LightRailNetwork.com has researched San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Tacoma and Portland, Oregon. The later of which still are under construction.

A great resource!!!

David Bickford | 6/23/2009 - 2:13pm

Proof of payment systems, sometimes incorrectly referred to as an " honor system," are the norm in almost all cities that use light rail. Turnstiles, gates, and other forms of controlled entry are the norm only in cities that use heavy rail and its associated more costly infrastructure. In cities like Phoenix, San Diego, Portland, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Denver, etc., light rail operates effectively based on a proof of payment system.

The July 1 fare increase has nothing at all to do with fare evasion on Phoenix's light rail. Instead, the fare increase is necesary to maintain a federal standard that transit systems cover at least 25% of operating costs from farebox revenues. Because Phoenix's transit fares are so low compared to the rest of the nation, an increase is necessary to meet the federal standard. In addition, a fare increase will offset diminished tax revenues due to the recession. All these factors were in place before light rail service started, and, again, they have nothing to do with fare evasion.

Deliberate fare evasion in Phoenix is quite low. Every time the inspectors have come through a train I've been on, they've found everyone to have a ticket or pass. The problem with users of employer-provided platinum passes not tapping correctly is indeed a problem, but it is being addressed through enforcement and education efforts. Overall, light rail in Phoenix has been a tremendous success.

.

Mike Evans | 6/16/2009 - 12:51pm
Too bad that there aren't more examples of new light rail systems that can prove so useful. Yes, the fares do not cover the ostensible operating costs but neither do bus fares and that of many other public infrastructures. We are a community and we need to underwrite systems that really work.
MARGARET GARGUILO | 6/15/2009 - 7:36pm
AMEN John!!! And do you think the NY Subways would still be there if it was run on an honor system? The light rail is and now they are talking of increasing the fares again as too many people aren't paying. Employers who give their employees monthly passes are only billed for the passes that are scanned. And people are not scanning. This part is a joke. The light rail has many people riding which is a positive but time will tell. I have taken it from N Central PHX to ASU for a basketball game and it was great not having to find parking. My 16 yo grd daughter rides it to AZ Center to go to the movies. It works. Now if we don't get priced out by the people who don't pay. WAKE UP PHX Transit!!
joseph o'leary | 6/15/2009 - 5:55pm
I'm happy to hear other people enjoy Light Rail, and that Phoenix and its surrounding cities have chosen to build it. When I lived in Scottsdale in 1996-97, there was no visible or practical public transportation, much less Light Rail. Good for Phoenix! Denver has Light Rail, and I enjoy riding it ($2 each way) to avoid parking and traffic hassles getting downtown, and I have even taken my bike on it when the weather's bad. Also enjoyable is people watching: it's a diverse crowd in Denver, as well, with service industry workers, students, the office crowd (clerical and professional) and visitors. It's humanity, face to face, sitting together. One doesn't see that on the highway. The true cost to Arizona's taxpayers for Ms. Smith's ride is, yes, probably higher than $1.25 per trip. But is not the true cost of driving on Phoenix's free expressways born by taxpayers as well? And neither did the cost of her airline ticket cover the cost of maintaining Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport, nor pay its air traffic controllers and staff. Federal subsidies have been a part of every public transportation project since the transcontinental railroads, at least. Hooray for Phoenix and Arizona's taxpayers for choosing to spend their hard-earned money on a project that will make their city and state a better place for everyone!
John Chuchman | 6/15/2009 - 4:21pm
And do you know how much it cost Arizona taxpayers for you take that ride? A bit more than the cost of your ticket, indeed!

Recently in Of Many Things