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Tempe Streetcar Is The Latest Development In County Public Transit

The Tempe streetcar is expected to look similar to the one in Seattle.
Photo Courtesy of Valley Metro
The Tempe streetcar is expected to look similar to the one in Seattle.

Tempe, which has seen rapid business and residential development in the last few years, is looking for ways to expand its public transit system to meet demand.

The new Tempe streetcar is part of Maricopa County’s 20-year Regional Transportation Plan. The comprehensive plan was launched more than a decade ago. In addition to adding buses, it includes 60 miles of high-capacity transit. The current track rail makes up 20 miles, and the Tempe streetcar would add another three.

The federally approved streetcar route would start out on Apache Boulevard near Rural Road, travel north on Mill Avenue and then east on Rio Salado Parkway along Tempe Town Lake.

“If that’s not where a streetcar goes, then it goes nowhere," Councilman Kolby Granville said. "There is no reason to have it if you aren’t going to put it where the densest part of our community is.”

Valley Metro is still planning the streetcar and is asking the public for input on stops, the type of car and the method it will use to actually get around. One option is an overhead cable system such as the light rail. The other is an off-wire battery-powered design. Both systems would include tracks, multiple cars and stops.

Construction is expected to cost nearly $200 million. Longtime Tempe resident Steve Stewart said it’s a lot of money for little benefit.

“It’s not cost-effective. It’s not efficient," he said. "It adds nothing to what we already have.”

It isn’t cost effective, but Granville said economic efficiency isn’t necessarily the goal of public transit. Most public transportation projects lose money, but cities are willing to accept the loss in revenue in exchange for the overall public benefit.

“Every time they step on a bus -- depending on how popular the bus route is -- we lose between 2.5 and about $6 for every person who steps on it," he said. "And we as a community have decided that's fine; that's what we do."

According to Graville, the light rail loses a little more than a dollar for each rider. Buses recover about 20 percent of operating costs through fares, and light rail recovers 45 percent of those costs from ticket sales. Granville estimated it loses a total of about $2 million per year, about half of the total operating cost.

“Even after those losses, it’s cheaper than building more roads, it’s cheaper than maintaining roads," he said. "It creates economic development. It’s a service to people who can’t afford cars."

Valley Metro estimates there has been more than $7 billion in economic development along the light rail line since it was built. Similarly, experts from the American Public Transportation Association expect businesses to pop up around the streetcar route.

But businesses and people already live along the line, Stewart said.

“I support light rail. I thought the idea was good because, guess what? It goes clear across the Valley," he said. "It gets people from point A to point Z and every place in between. This is strictly for Tempe and limited at that.”

Stewart said the money could be better spent improving other forms of public transit, such as buses and light rail. The city is funding the streetcar project with a combination of federal grants and part of a half-cent, countywide transit sales tax already in place.

The streetcar should be ready for passengers by 2018.

Alexandra Olgin was a Senior Field Correspondent at KJZZ from 2013 to 2016.