Fare and Balanced

Written by Tom Marcinko Category: Valley News Issue: April 2012

Your ticket costs about the same as light rail and connects you to the Valley Metro system. Just the thing for New Year’s Eve block parties, the arts festival or just to commute to work or school if you’re an ASU student or employee.”

Anyway, that could be the future for Tempe mass transit. Last September, the Tempe City Council voted unanimously to ratify funding for the streetcar, and began accepting bids early this year. City and Metro Light Rail officials say the vehicle fits the pedestrian- and bike-friendly setting of Mill. They promise that building the shallow tracks won’t disrupt traffic like light rail in Phoenix, and predict it will save energy as it cuts pollution, traffic and parking hassles.

Critics say the system is costly and non-essential, and want to shelve the plans. Ultimately, the fate of the streetcar may be decided by the Tempe mayoral election on May 15.

About $40 million for the project comes from Maricopa County’s half-cent sales tax, levied when 2004’s Proposition 400 transit plan passed, with every Tempe precinct voting yes. Another $30 million is drawn from Federal Highway Administration clean-air funds. The remaining $60 million could arrive from U.S. transit grants. The streetcar costs an estimated $3.1 million a year to run, funded by fares and possibly Tempe’s pro-transit one-cent sales tax.

Councilman Mark Mitchell, candidate for outgoing Mayor Hugh Hallman’s seat in May, wants to put the project on hold despite his “yea” vote in September. “We have to be fiscally responsible,” he says, cautioning against pinning hopes on uncertain federal funds and adding to Tempe’s deficit. What might happen to funds already allotted, or whether the next mayor can brake the project upon taking office in July, isn’t clear. Other mayoral candidates – former council member Linda Spears and restaurateur Michael Monti – have voiced support for the project.

Austerity is wise, but funds voted years ago specifically for transit belong to Tempe on a use-or-lose basis, says council member Shana Ellis. Other skeptics ask why Tempe doesn’t simply run more blue Orbit buses. That misses the streetcar’s major advantage, Ellis says: “If you add a bus line, it doesn’t spur people to move their business or to redevelop. But if you put track down, it does.”

Metro CEO Steve Banta points to Portland, Oregon, where businesses and housing grew along the streetcar line he oversaw there: “You get maybe $4 to $6 of development for every $1 invested in the infrastructure. What I’ve seen in my experience is you get more like $12 in return for every $1 spent on streetcar systems, because the streetcar system just promotes urban dense development.”

Advocates cite light rail as a success story: Averaging 40,000 riders, the $1.4 billion investment has powered $6.8 billion in development, Metro spokesperson Hillary Foose says. Hallman adds: “As gasoline prices spiked, we saw a whole lot of people trying mass transit as an alternative to $4 a gallon fuel, and they went, ‘Oh, this ain’t so bad.’”

“If I can go to the grocery, pharmacy, or to dinner without getting my car out of the garage, I’m a happy girl,” says Lisa Roach, a Tempe banker working with a community streetcar group.

For such reasons, about 50 communities across the U.S. are planning streetcars, including Tucson. Proposed add-ons for Tempe include a line to the Chicago Cubs training stadium in Mesa, expansion along Rio Salado Drive to Tempe Marketplace, and – perhaps a decade away – solar charging stations.