Sep 18, 2023 - News

Tempe Streetcar exceeded expectations in first year

A green streetcar.

Photo: Courtesy of Valley Metro

In its first year, the Tempe Streetcar beat ridership expectations and is already on track for expansion.

Why it matters: The 3-mile streetcar route has provided a faster way to transport people through the busiest parts of Tempe, and its early success has created a powerful argument for expansion into Mesa.

Flashback: The streetcar was more than a decade in the making, Tempe sustainability and resilience director Eric Iwersen tells us.

  • Landlocked Tempe hit its city limits in the 1980s, forcing future building to go up instead of out, which has made it one of the densest areas in metro Phoenix.
  • This spurred the city to deploy high-capacity public transit, starting with a robust bus system and then light rail. Streetcar is the next stage of that growth, Iwersen says.

By the numbers: The streetcar served more than 800,000 passengers from its opening in May 2022 through the end of last month, according to Valley Metro.

  • Before it opened, Valley Metro and Tempe set a goal of about 330,000 riders by this time.

How it works: The streetcar is sort of a hybrid between a light rail and a bus. It has the design of a small light rail car, but it's slower and stops more frequently.

  • There are 14 streetcar stops over 3 miles and one car fits about 125 people.

Between the lines: The streetcar connects with the light rail in two places, and Valley Metro has seen some of the biggest demand for the system in those areas, where people transfer from one rail system to the other.

  • "That kind of combination of modes really shows that we're building a regional system. Yes, the streetcar is in Tempe, but it really does connect into the larger transportation network in metro Phoenix as well," Valley Metro capital planning manager Marty Ziech said.

What's next: Tempe and neighboring Mesa have funded a study to explore an extension from the streetcar's current northern endpoint near Marina Heights.

  • The new route would travel east on Rio Salado Parkway past Tempe Marketplace, Sloan Park and Mesa Riverview. It would then head south on Dobson Road, connecting to the Mesa Asian District and a light rail stop on Main Street.
  • The current study will be followed by an engineering design phase that should be complete by mid-2025, Ziech said.
  • At that point, additional funding will be needed to move forward with construction.

The intrigue: Rail projects like this traditionally have been funded in part with a countywide transportation tax called Proposition 400.

  • State lawmakers last month passed a bill forbidding future Prop. 400 spending on rail.

Yes, but: Cities will likely be able to shift some of their other transportation funding to continue rail spending.

What they're saying: "We're optimistic about getting funding through a variety of methods. We'll get creative about how to fund the streetcar," he says.

Of note: The streetcar is still free to ride until further notice. When there is a fare, it will be about $1.


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