Aug 14, 2023 - Transit

With future light rail expansion in question, other mass transit options stand out

Illustration of a bus seen through the view of binoculars.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

While long-term expansion of the Phoenix area's light rail system is on the ropes due to uncertain funding, regional mass transit planners are looking at other options that can help people navigate the sprawling Valley without cars.

Driving the news: In Phoenix, looking beyond rail has become a necessity. A hard-fought compromise between Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, and Republican legislative leaders yielded an agreement that will allow Maricopa County voters to weigh in next year on a 20-year extension of a half-cent sales tax for transportation funding known as Proposition 400.

Yes, but: The agreement prohibits the use of that money to extend the light rail.

  • Though construction will continue on extensions that were already in the works along Central Avenue in south Phoenix and to the former site of Metrocenter mall, near Dunlap and 35th Avenue, in the northern part of town.

Meanwhile, local transportation officials have turned to other options beyond rail, including express buses and a type of group ride-hailing service.

What's next: Phoenix expects the first corridor of its proposed Bus Rapid Transit plan, from the former site of Metrocenter down 35th Avenue to Van Buren Street and along Van Buren to Central Avenue, to be operational in late 2028 or early 2029. The city expects to begin soliciting public input for future phases sometime next year, Brenda Yanez, a spokesperson for the city's public transit department, told Axios.

  • BRT will stop every one to two miles, bypassing local bus stops, and can include features like traffic signal preemption and dedicated lanes.
  • It will have more flexibility than light rail because it's not tethered to a track, Valley Metro spokesperson Susan Tierney tells Axios.
  • Valley Metro is looking at BRT as well but has no plans to implement such a system outside Phoenix proper.

What they're saying: It's a challenge providing mass transit for the notoriously sprawling Phoenix area, "But … we try to find the best tool for each situation," said Carol Ketcherside, deputy director for service planning at Valley Metro, which runs much of the Phoenix area's mass transit.

Zoom in: Some Phoenix suburbs, including Avondale, Chandler, Goodyear and Surprise started using a system known as "microtransit" over the last year.

  • It operates like a ride-hailing service, but with fixed stops in neighborhoods that take multiple people to nearby destinations.

Zoom out: For longer hauls, Valley Metro has long operated express buses, which transport riders from far-flung corners of the Phoenix area to the urban center during morning and afternoon rush hours.

  • The buses travel on freeways and are often supported by park-and-rides.

The big picture: Valley Metro is still hoping to follow through with two major expansion plans for light rail, one that would extend it from downtown Phoenix to near the state Capitol, and another that would run parallel to Interstate 10 for nearly 10 miles into the western metro area.

This story has been corrected to reflect the Valley Metro spokesperson is Susan Tierney (not Carol Tierney).


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