Let’s Expand The Tempe Streetcar (and get serious about public transit)

Tempe and Mesa are studying a potential expansion of the Tempe Streetcar into Mesa. 

The two cities are paying Valley Metro consultants $2 million to identify a preferred route. The study will include preliminary design work such as selecting station locations.

A prior study of streetcar expansion had listed several potential options for connecting the two cities. It ranked the Rio Salado corridor at the top of potential options. 

Potential expansion routes from the prior study. 

Expanding the streetcar would be a big step forward in furthering the reach of the Valley Metro rail system and providing more transit options to both residents of Tempe and Mesa.

However, the study may all be for naught if Maricopa County’s Proposition 400—a key source of regional transit funding—is not renewed.

Proposition 400 Explained

A big barrier to future streetcar expansion—and expansion of public transit in Maricopa County more broadly—is the upcoming expiration of the Prop 400 transportation tax at the end of 2025.

Revenue distribution from the Prop 400 sales tax.

Revenue from the tax has helped finance the construction of light rail expansion as well as the Tempe Streetcar. Prop 400 revenue provided $112 million of the $200 million total capital cost of the Tempe Streetcar. 

Last year, former Governor Doug Ducey vetoed an attempt to put an extension of the tax before voters. Now legislators are attempting to put together new legislation that would extend it—but with a catch. Republican legislators are adamant on stripping out funding for public transit. 

The version which most recently failed in committee would have allocated 20% of revenue to public transit, down from the current 33% and much less than what the 40% in the bill vetoed by Ducey would have provided. 


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The House transportation committee plan to resurrect Prop 400 in the House would allocate just 26% to public transit and would limit any light rail expansion, only allowing funding to be used for existing maintenance and operations. It would also prohibit any project that eliminates existing street lanes. 

Cities may have other options. According to reporting from Axios Phoenix, proponents could attempt to put a statewide initiative forward to extend the tax. While Prop 400 only impacts Maricopa County, county-wide propositions require the approval of the legislature. 

Additionally, cities could individually put their own tax to voters, a much more piecemeal plan that would likely bring in much less revenue. 

Don’t derail public transit

Republican attempts to strip funding away from public transit and limit its expansion is beyond foolish on the merits. The population continues to grow in Metro Phoenix and traffic continues to get worse. The region continuously gets some of the worst marks on air pollution in the country, caused in large part by said traffic

Public transit provides an important release valve for traffic. It gets cars off the road improving air quality. It is far superior to the car in terms of climate impact and a much more affordable option for many people. 

We should also be clear this legislation would simply put Prop 400 back before voters. The reason legislators are attempting to strip public transit funding from the legislation is that it is quite popular with voters. Despite multiple attempts to strangle Valley Metro rail, voters continuously support the continuation and expansion of light rail. 

Arizona’s cities and towns are correct in pushing for a version of Prop 400 which sees a large chunk of revenue go to public transit. Expanding light rail and other public transit options is necessary and good. 

If there is a critique to be made, its this: Arizona’s cities and towns have not done a good enough job maximizing existing public transit resources. 

Cities need to pull more weight

For all these reasons public transit is good, you would hope cities would put their back into making the existing light rail more successful. Cities need to be maximizing ridership and usage of existing public transit. This means taking steps to make them frequent and reliable.It means allowing as much new housing as possible near public transit stops and taking steps to reduce car dependency like eliminating parking minimums.

Yet over fourteen years later, empty lots can still be found right alongside the light rail in Phoenix. In Tempe, new developments next to both streetcar and light rail stations are being built with more parking than is necessary. Mill Ave remains open to traffic in the densest and most walkable part of the metro area. Frequency on the light rail and streetcar is only around 15 minutes at peak hours.

Transit needs to be frequent and reliable. It is inexcusable to have 15 minute headways on the three mile long Tempe streetcar during peak hours. At current frequency, if one has just missed the streetcar, it may take comparable time to simply walk to your destination rather than wait for the next one. 

This is why when planning streetcar expansion, Tempe and Mesa should make smart design choices such as giving the streetcar an exclusive right-of-way, allowing it to bypass traffic and provide faster and more reliable service, giving it a clear advantage over a bus system. 

It’s time to get serious about transit

As cities fight for more public transit dollars, they are simultaneously fighting tooth and nail against needed legislation like SB 1611, which would allow more people to live next to transit. This is self-defeating and speaks to the competing interests at play which hold back transit.

A more serious group of legislators might seek to tie transit expansion funding to seeing an increase in ridership, reliability, and frequency of service. Instead, Republican legislators seem more interested in attempting to throw a wrench into any sort of public transit funding. 

Unfortunately for them, the cat is out of the bag on public transit. Even skeptical legislators should commit to making Valley Metro run as effectively as possible. Voters keep voting for it by larger margins, money has already been spent, tracks have been laid. Even the transit skeptics—foolish as they are—should want to see already allocated tax dollars spent as effectively as possible. 

It’s time for all parties involved to get serious about public transit. The legislature should pass a clean version of Prop 400 with increased funding to allow for further transit expansion. Cities should get serious about doing more with existing public transit lines.

It’s time to run more buses and trains, build more housing near buses and trains, and incentivize riding buses and trains. 

You can contact your legislators here.

Want to write for us? We are always looking for writing about urbanism, housing policy, and related issues impacting Tempe and our state. Email us at TempeYIMBY(at)gmail.com

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