Management & Operations

Phoenix: America's Hottest Transit Town

Posted on October 1, 2006 by Joey Campbell and Steve Hirano

In the Navajo language, Phoenix is called Hoozdo, which translates into “the place is hot.” The temperature in the Arizona capital reaches or exceeds 100 degrees on an average of 89 days a year. It’s ranked the hottest city in the U.S. by the Weather Channel. Only Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Baghdad have higher average summer temperatures. But Phoenix and the surrounding communities are known for more than their infernal temperatures. These days, when people talk about the Phoenix metropolitan area, the conversation is more often about suburban sprawl, traffic congestion and rapid population growth. Since 1990, the population of the region has more than doubled. It’s now estimated that 3.7 million people live in the metro area. In 2004, Phoenix was ranked as the sixth most populous city in the country by the U.S. Census Bureau. Signs of this swelling population are everywhere — especially in snarled traffic along both arterial streets and freeways. And, with an estimated 100,000 people pouring into the region every year, the congestion is only going to get worse. Transit plays key role
Trying to get ahead of this growth has been the goal of transportation planners in the valley. Not only do they want to find ways to get people out of their cars and to reduce tailpipe emissions, they also want to encourage economic and residential development in city centers. Improvement of the region’s bus system, anchored by the Regional Public Transportation Authority (Valley Metro), has helped to alleviate some of the congestion. According to the Regional Transportation Plan, the development of a new “Super Grid” regional bus network will offer consistent levels of frequency on bus routes. It will be implemented in four phases, with completion scheduled for 2025. Expansion of express bus service and bus rapid transit (BRT) is also scheduled in four phases. (For more on the region’s bus program, see story on pg. 24.) Pinning hopes on light rail
The linchpin to the area’s transportation strategy is a 20-mile light rail line called METRO that will connect Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa (see map on pg. 18) when it opens for service in December 2008. The rail corridor is dotted with approximately 3,000 businesses as well as the US Airways Center (home to the NBA’s Phoenix Suns), Chase Field (home to Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks) and Arizona State University. The line will also have a stop at Sky Harbor International Airport, where it will connect with a planned automated people mover scheduled to begin operation in 2012. The METRO project, budgeted at $1.3 billion, is being designed and constructed and will be operated by Valley Metro Rail (VMR), which is being supported by the efforts of more than 60 consultant firms. Lead design consultant on the project is Parsons Brinckerhoff. Gannett Fleming and URS, among others, are also making major contributions to the transportation system. Part of their challenge is created by the coordination of the management scheme. With the line divided into five 4-mile sections that are being built simultaneously, the key to integrating the work is continuity and communication. (See related story beginning on pg. 26.) Simonetta takes control
VMR was formed in October 2002 by partner cities Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa and Glendale. In late 2003, VMR hired transit veteran Rick Simonetta as its chief executive. Simonetta, who beat out 30 candidates for the position, had been a consultant for PB Consult but is best remembered for successfully guiding Atlanta’s bus and rail system, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), during the 1996 Summer Olympics. Simonetta says he was excited about the prospect of supervising a pure start-up, something he hasn’t done before. In addition, the 59-year-old Simonetta plans to retire in the Phoenix area, which was another benefit of relocating to the valley. Simonetta has assembled a team of 40 VMR employees to handle oversight of the project. “But we depend on our consultants to provide us with technical expertise,” he says. “The cities also get involved at various levels, from technical staff to city managers to the mayors and city councils.” Essential to the success of VMR’s coordination of activities is its ability to maintain partnerships. “We have really been all about partnering,” Simonetta says. “It exists at every level — technical, financial and among our agency, city staff and contractors. We’ve gone as far as creating partnerships between contractors because they have to hand off a lot of responsibilities. I credit Vicki Barron, our director of design and construction, with putting that kind of partnering spirit together.” METRO’s nuts and bolts
The starter line will have 27 stations, all with bus connections, along a track alignment located mostly in street median. The project also includes seven park-and-ride lots, a bridge over Town Lake in Tempe and a bridge at 48th Street in Phoenix. The trains are expected to operate 18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Peak-period frequency will be 10 to 15 minutes, and off-peak frequency will be 20 to 30 minutes. It’s estimated that 26,000 people will ride the line daily during its first year of operation. By the year 2020, the number of boardings could reach 50,000 per day. Security will be provided by closed-circuit cameras and emergency phones on trains and at stations and park-and-rides. Design of the stations will also reduce the number of areas where criminals can hide. Another key consideration in the design package is providing shading and cooling at the stations. A typical canopy arrangement was dismissed because it does not provide shade directly below the canopy at 7 a.m. or 5 p.m., when most bus and rail passengers are waiting for the vehicles. Instead, station designers came up with vertical as well as horizontal shading using “cool screens.” Adds Simonetta, “We also have greenery that absorbs the heat, and we’ve incorporated chilled water fountains at each station.” Simonetta says the vehicles are designed to keep passengers as cool as possible, with tinted windows and enormous air-conditioning units. “These things are the most robust systems anywhere in the world,” he says. “They’ll have two 12.5-ton air conditioning units per vehicle.” The line will be serviced by 50 low-floor rail vehicles, manufactured by Kinkisharyo. Each will be 93 feet long and have a capacity of 200 passengers, with seats for up to 66. If three vehicles are linked, the train will have an overall capacity of 600. With construction underway, Simonetta says VMR is spending considerable time and attention on minimizing the impact of the work on businesses located along the corridor. VMR employs outreach coordinators who meet regularly with affected business owners to provide construction updates. The Community Advisory Boards (CABs) are composed of business owners, residents and neighborhood representatives and are charged with evaluating the contractors’ performance in minimizing impacts on the community. The CABs meet monthly with the contractors to discuss progress and issues. They provide rating evaluations to the contractors on how well they performed in minimizing impacts on residents and businesses. The rating evaluations determine whether the contractors will be awarded cash incentive payments. The VMR Board allocated $2.5 million for such incentives. “We also made a commitment not to shut down a street completely from building front to building front,” Simonetta says. “At no time will access be denied to our businesses.” Simonetta realizes, however, that business owners could see their fortunes dwindle in the face of rail construction no matter how hard VMR tries to prevent this from occurring. “The overall message to businesses along the rail line is to be creative, borrow money if you have to, but stick it out because it will be worth it to you when the line is finished,” he says. How it started
Phoenix’s light rail program has been in the works for nearly a decade. The Maricopa Association of Governments adopted light rail for the Central Phoenix/East Valley corridor into its long-range plan after a major investment study was completed in February 1997. A year earlier, Tempe was the first valley city to give its nod to light rail by passing a half-cent sales tax for public transportation in 1996. Two years later, Mesa voters passed a Quality of Life tax, which also funds light rail. In 2000, Phoenix voters passed a 0.4-cent sales tax for public transportation. In 2001, voters in Glendale passed a transit referendum, which includes constructing a light rail line from downtown Glendale to link with the 20-mile starter line. For the construction of the initial line, Phoenix will contribute the lion’s share, $380 million, while Tempe will put up $165 million and Mesa will chip in $28 million. VMR has received a Full Funding Grant Agreement for $587 million of Section 5309 New Starts funding and $60 million in Flexible Funds under CMAQ. Prop 400 fuels extension
In November 2004, when the construction of METRO’s 20-mile starter line began moving swiftly from concept toward reality, voters in Maricopa County went to the polls to vote on Proposition 400, a 20-year extension of a half-cent sales tax for transportation. Originally passed in 1985, the half-penny sales tax helped to build the area’s freeway system over the past two decades. Light rail critics lobbied heavily against the $17 billion plan, some of them arguing that the METRO light rail line would serve only a small fraction of the county’s commuters. With the starter line quickly moving from drawing board to construction, however, the naysayers fell short. The referendum, approved by a 58% to 42% margin, provides funding for, among other things, extensions to the starter line that will increase the total route length from 20 to 57 miles. The passage of the transportation sales tax was a huge victory for the rail project and transit in general. Under the Regional Transportation Plan implemented by Proposition 400, one-third of the funding generated by the sales tax goes to public transit. Of that amount, 43% goes to the light rail system. “Now that construction is underway, we are seeing progress, and attitudes are really positive,” Simonetta says. Evolving at rapid clip
Simonetta says the development of the light rail line continues the rapid evolution of the transportation infrastructure in the Phoenix area. “Twenty years ago, this area didn’t even have freeways,” he says. Although the freeway system is now in place, rush-hour traffic is severe and growing worse as developers continue to expand the boundaries of the metropolitan area with subdivision after subdivision. As Simonetta points out, Phoenix is the largest city in the western U.S. without a rail system. Like other cities with light rail systems, such as Dallas, Denver, Houston and Salt Lake City, Phoenix has a need to move a large number of people in an urban core without disrupting the urban core. Accomplishing this task with light rail, Simonetta adds, would attract development such as high-rise offices and condominiums into the city center. “Most people think it is going to help cultivate an urban environment that people have wanted for a long time but haven’t figured out how to create,” he says. “The proof that this is happening in other places is evidence that people really do desire a lifestyle alternative.” What Simonetta’s referring to is the type of urban revitalization and commercial expansion that spurs residential growth in the downtown area. “Many people who are my age are tired of living in the suburbs,” he says. “Their families are already grown; they want to connect with culture and other activities and yet they don’t want to travel 25 or 30 miles to do that. And they now have these new opportunities for an urban lifestyle.” Skepticism is waning
But changing the attitude of the community about light rail hasn’t been easy. “Prior to 2004, there was still a lot of skepticism about why we would invest more than a billion dollars in a light rail system,” Simonetta says. “This is a very conservative political environment and that environment challenges government in a big way.” Simonetta is used to fighting the tide, however. He faced tough challenges during his six years (1994-2000) as general manager of MARTA and during his 10 years (1985-1994) as general manager at the Central Ohio Transit Authority in Columbus. His 35 years of transit experience also includes executive positions at Ann Arbor (Mich.) Transportation Authority, Regional Transportation District in Denver, Cumberland-Dauphin-Harrisburg Transit Authority in Pennsylvania and the Port Authority of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh. The challenges have been plenty. “In Atlanta, for instance, you have the tensions of race that permeate everything,” Simonetta says. “In Pittsburgh and Denver, you have really strong weather challenges. You also have strong unions in some of those northern cities. In some places, you might not have the ability to get dedicated local funding, so you have to depend on state funding. Every transit system has its own set of challenges.” Complex structure cited
At VMR, the challenge is orchestrating the rail system’s development in concert with the diverse interests of stakeholders. “I’ve never worked in as complex a governance structure as we have here,” Simonetta says. Simonetta actually enjoys the oversight provided by the member cities, calling it “refreshing.” Working as part of a governance team, although requiring more approvals and buy-ins, provides a bit of a cushion “because you feel so much more comfortable when you are not out there doing everything on your own subject to judgment at some later date,” he says. “Before we jump into the water, we sit around and talk about the temperature of that water, how long we’re going to be in it and who is jumping in with us.” Close ties to politicians
To navigate through this governance arrangement, Simonetta has found himself working closely with elected officials — and liking it. “The closer you are to elected officials, the closer you are to the public,” he says. That closeness to the public was partially responsible for the two-year delay in putting the rail line in operation. (It was originally scheduled to begin service in late 2006.) “One of the reasons the project ended up slipping a couple of years was because no one really appreciated that the design process would involve so much public input,” Simonetta says. “We held thousands of meetings to gather public input. And the one thing you learn when you are close to the public is that you don’t ask for their input and then do things the way you want to do them anyway. You have to listen.” Currently, VMR has four member cities — Glendale, Mesa, Phoenix and Tempe. The mayors of those cities have a weighted vote. Phoenix gets 50%, while the others share the remaining 50%. “But we’ve never had to take a vote where we had to use the weight because things have generally been a consensus,” Simonetta says. This harmony has been a pleasant surprise to Simonetta. Indeed, the 20-year Regional Transportation Plan approved under Proposition 400 was an example of how all the mayors of cities in Maricopa County could compromise on how the transportation funding would be divided. “How they came to a consensus is really amazing,” Simonetta says. “You have these far-out suburbs that have 30,000 to 40,000 people but are positioned to grow to 200,000, but they don’t have any roads. So they need freeways and roads, not a lot of transit. Contrast that with Tempe and Phoenix, where they don’t want any more freeways. They are interested in some arterial street improvements and they are interested in transit — bus and rail. So all these cities brought their agendas to the table, and they came to a consensus. And they voted unanimously to adopt the plan, which was a big selling point to voters.” Working hand in hand with the three cities that are funding the rail construction requires VMR to steer clear of trying to push its own agenda, no matter how much time it would save. “There is a tremendous amount of transparency within the organization,” Simonetta says. “We consider ourselves an open book working in a glass bowl.” Simonetta is confident that the ambitious rail program in the Phoenix area will succeed beyond expectation. “We use a phrase: ‘This project will change the way people move,’” he says. Simonetta believes integrating the area’s bus system with the light rail service will maximize its ability to attract choice riders. “We expect to carry lots and lots of people who are new to transit,” he says. “This means that people will be leaving their automobiles at home, which helps to reduce congestion and improve air quality, and it allows us to convert ourselves into an urban environment that will attract people and businesses and really put the Phoenix area on the map.”

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