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Arizona just got $500,000 for passenger rail. This expert says it could cost $10 billion

Phoenix has been the only major city in the country without passenger rail service, like Amtrak, for three decades. There is an old union station in downtown Phoenix that sits empty — though a redevelopment plan for it is in the works.

Now, a whole lot of Arizona’s politicians are excited about the announcement that the Federal Railroad Administration awarded the Arizona Department of Transportation a $500,000 grant for planning the proposed line.

It’s money that comes from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Joe Biden signed in 2021. And, Axios Phoenix reports, it will go to supplement $3.5 million from this year’s state budget that will also support passenger rail service between Phoenix and Tucson.

But Tom Zoellner says it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what it would really take to restart passenger rail in Phoenix — and it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, if at all.

Zoellner is a longtime Arizona writer and author of many books, including one about trains called, "Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World — from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief," which came out in 2014. The Show talked to him about all of the hubbub around getting passenger rail to Phoenix now.

TOM ZOELLNER: Well, every elected official in Arizona who put out a press release on this really should have been embarrassed. This was a drop in the bucket when it measured up against the money that it's going to take to actually get regular commuter service between Phoenix and Tucson. It's an eminently good idea. We really need it. There are 60,000 cars every day on interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson. It's one of the most dangerous stretches of rural interstate in the entire country, thanks to that congestion. And one of the most wasteful short-haul flights is the run from Phoenix to Tucson. We're now doing about sevem to 10 flights a day between these two airports. The train is badly needed, but what's also badly needed is a real state and federal commitment to this, and we haven't seen it.

Why does this not exist here? Why are we kind of the only major city in the country without passenger rail service?

ZOELLNER: We're the, we're the only city of above 1 million in population that doesn't have inner-city passenger rail. And this is a real irony in Arizona whose very shape was determined by the railroad. The Gadsden Purchase of 1854 that added southern Arizona to the state that was done for the purpose of creating an all-weather railroad from the southern deep South cotton states to Pacific ports.

So, you can thank the railroad for the way Arizona looks. But Phoenix has always been a bit of a difficult railroad town because of topography. It's hemmed in by the Superstitions to the east, and it never really was part of any sort of transcontinental network. There was a line up to the Santa Fe tracks up in Ash Fork. It was called the Peavine. And it ran until, passenger service, until 1969. And then Phoenix lost its Amtrak connection altogether in 1996.

So, it is possible to take a train, broadly speaking, from Phoenix to Tucson, but you have to be extremely creative about it. You need to get on board the, the Sunset Limited on its eastbound journey, and you have to go to the fire flung excerpt of Maricopa. No one outside of real train enthusiasts or serious eccentrics is gonna do this.

There's sort of a romantic notion of trains, at least in American history and Americana. Is that gone? Is that part of why this is a big hurdle?

ZOELLNER:The romance will never die? And that's, I think a big part of why there's continuing interest in shoring up Amtrak, which was a compromise, a federal compromise brokered in 1971 to bring failing private passenger railroads under some federal protection, but it always runs at a deficit. This is just a part and parcel of it. Passenger rail has never been profitable.

And regarding any sort of Phoenix to Tucson Link, it's gonna have to be understood from the start that this is gonna lose money every single year, probably up to $30 million a year. That operating money is gonna have to come from somewhere.

The closest analog to this proposal, you can find it over in New Mexico. The Roadrunner which goes between Albuquerque and Santa Fe two dozen times a day that that loses $24 million every, every year. And the state subsidizes it. but I mean, you gotta acknowledge that there's ancillary benefits to this that more than pay for that as far as cars off the road, as far as business culture, as far as the increased value of the real estate around station.

The the big winner in all this would be not just Phoenix and Tucson, but also Coolidge, which in one stroke would become part of the metro Phoenix housing market. It would be an enormously attractive place to live for commuters to downtown Phoenix.

So we would need a big chunk of state money to make this happen and a big chunk of state money every single year to subsidize this. Does it always come from the state or is it also federally subsidized?

ZOELLNER: Yeah, this via matching state-federal deal. And when it comes to the price tag, we really shouldn't get ourselves. I've seen estimates as high as $10 billion to build this link when it comes to building bridges across washes. You're going to need double trackage on that right of way. You have to build viaducts over roads, new grade crossings. We're talking about 128 miles of this, and the most recent estimate is around $4.5 billion. But I think that's low.

So this is not as simple as it seems. There are train tracks in downtown Phoenix. There is an old station in downtown Phoenix that we don't really use for this anymore. It seems like you could just reinstate it, but there's a lot to be built in terms of infrastructure.

ZOELLNER: Yes, it's not just as simple as replacing the tracks that were ripped out. It's far more complicated than that.

Let's talk abut the upside of this, because you talked about the number of cars on that road, pollution accidents. I'm sure there are climate change arguments here. Give us the broad spectrum of just how powerful the arguments for something like this are.

ZOELLNER: It's incredibly powerful, and that's why Sens. Sema and Kelly and the governor ought to be really embarrassed with the low level of funding that we got out of the $8 billion that the president announced. Why wasn't some real cash doled out to Arizona here when this is one of the most obvious places to build in inner-city rail? The real winners here and the president's announcement are the struggling bullet train in California, which may open in 2028 from Bakersfield to Fresno, a small central link in that. And the $3 billion given to Brightline West, which is the a private equity venture that's going to build a high speed rail from LA to Las Vegas. Why why we got such a piddly amount ought to be a question that we're asking our elected officials.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.