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Light-rail planners are wrong to seek more funding before first phase is complete

Light-rail planners are wrong to seek more funding before first phase is complete

February 25, 2007 - Tribune Editorial

The Valley agency building 20 miles of light rail in Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa is making a brazen attempt to more than triple the size of its empire before we have any indication this form of mass transit will work in Arizona.

Valley METRO is answering Gov. Janet Napolitano’s call for the Arizona Department of Transportation to quickly develop a plan to slow the growth of motor vehicle traffic as part of an effort to affect climate change. ADOT says it’s open to all possibilities, but many people assumed Napolitano was referring to the establishment of commuter rail, which would have its own corridors with fewer stops than light rail, or a rapid passenger train linking the Valley with Tucson and eventually Prescott.

However, light rail planners are suggesting their system should figure prominently in any statewide proposal. As Tribune writer Garin Groff reported Friday, Metro executive director Rick Simonetta is asking for $1.7 billion to speed up the construction schedule from 2025 to 2020 for a second phase of 34 miles of light rail, plus add another 23 miles to the system by 2027.

The first set of tracks is expected to start conducting regular passenger service in December 2008, but only after years of acrimonious debate about the huge expense and unknown efficiency of a street-level system forced to travel at lower speeds and desired as much for its economic redevelopment potential as for any ability to get commuters out of their autos.

METRO officials point out the next phase of light-rail construction was approved by voters when Maricopa County’s half-cent sales tax for transportation was renewed in 2004. But they knows quite well the state legislation authorizing that 2004 election includes a requirement that METRO reach certain benchmarks before it can seek any more state or federal funding.

Until that first segment opens, all we really know about Valley light rail is that it’s quite effective at disrupting traffic on the streets in its path at a price tag of $70 million a mile.

An environmental impact study conducted before the first segment qualified for federal funding showed it would have only a small impact on air pollution (the air immediately surrounding some spots could become even dirtier because of more auto congestion). For that reason alone, light rail shouldn’t be considered for any statewide plan intended to reduce greenhouse gases.

METRO should focus on completing its first project on time and within budget, which aren’t guaranteed at this point, and delay talk about further expansions until we have some real experience with lightrail cars moving from west Mesa to Tempe and Phoenix.

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