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Phoenix Light Rail: Developing a 66-mile system by 2034 [free access]

November 1, 2016

In August 2015, the city of Phoenix approved the 35-year city wide transportation plan, which proposes expanding the existing light-rail transit (LRT) system by 67.6 km (42 miles) to reach 106.21 km (66 miles). The LRT system began operations in December 2008 and serves three cities – Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa – in the Phoenix metropolitan area.


Box 1 provides a background on the Phoenix metropolitan area.

Box 1: Phoenix metropolitan area


The Phoenix metropolitan area in Arizona encompasses the cities of Chandler, Glendale, Mesa, Phoenix and Tempe. It has a population of 4.5 million residents and is the 12th largest metropolitan area in the country. The gross domestic product (GDP) of the area stood at USD215 billion in 2014.


Phoenix (the principal city in the metropolitan area) is the capital and largest city of Arizona in the United States. It is the county seat of Maricopa County and is one of the largest cities in the country by land area. For the past 20 years, Phoenix has consistently ranked as one of the fastest growing economies of all metro areas in the United States.


The metropolitan area is considered to be one of the fastest growing areas in terms of population. Population increased by 400,000 residents during 2010-15. By 2030, the population of Phoenix is estimated to increase to 2.2 million, and the population of the metro area to 6.3 million.


Valley Metro is responsible for the operation, design and construction of the regional transit system in the Phoenix metropolitan area.

Source: Global Mass Transit


Current LRT network


The system comprises one line, which spans 41.84 km (26 miles) from Dunlap/19th Avenue to 44th Street/Washington in Phoenix, further to Price-101 Freeway/Apache Boulevard in Tempe and finally to Mesa Drive/Main Street in Mesa. The end-to-end journey time is 85 minutes.


The most recent addition to the network was the Phoenix Northwest LRT Extension Phase I, which was opened in March 2016. The extension spans 5.14 km (3.19 miles) from Montebello to Dunlap Avenue, covering three stations (at Dunlap, Northern and Glendale). The joint venture (JV) of Sundt and Stacy & Witbeck were the construction contractors and AECOM was the design contractor.


Prior to this, service commenced on the 5-km (3.1-mile) Central Mesa light-rail extension that connects Sycamore Main Street and Mesa Drive and covers three intermediate stations.


The line runs entirely on the surface and has dedicated right-of-way on city streets. The system is fully accessible. It meets or exceeds all standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.


The line connects to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport at the 44th Street/Washington Street station. From the station, passengers use the escalator to connect to the PHX Sky Train, which transports passengers to Terminal 4 and East Economy Parking. The PHX Sky Train is free for the public and runs 24 hours a day.




The line covers 35 stations, of which 21 are in Phoenix, nine are in Tempe and five are in Mesa. There are 11 park-and-ride locations, which offer 4,488 parking spaces.


Each platform at the station is approximately the length of a downtown city block. Each station is 300 feet long and 16 feet wide, and positioned either in the median or alongside outer curbs. Most stations are located in the centre of the roadway requiring the use of a signalised crosswalk to enter or exit the platform. They are generally 1.2 km (0.75 mile) apart; some are closer together in the downtown Phoenix and Tempe areas.


The station design is a unique response to Arizona’s desert climate. The stations have tensile fabric shade canopies and louvred shade panels to provide adequate shade. Amenities include benches, drinking fountains, electronic display boards, security cameras, security phones, fare machines and bike racks.


Cost and funding


The initial 20-mile line was constructed between 2005 and 2007 at an estimated cost of USD1.4 billion. The funding sources included a federal grant under the New Starts Program (USD587 million), Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funding (USD59 million) and local tax dollars (sales tax revenue from Phoenix and Tempe, general fund allocations from Mesa, and the Proposition 400 half-cent sales tax from the county).


The Central Mesa Extension has been built at a cost of USD199 million. Funding sources included a Small Starts grant (USD75 million), Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality fund (USD52.8 million), and regional funds (USD71.2 million).


The Northwest Extension has been built at a cost of USD327 million and was funded by regional funds (USD182 million) and local funds (USD145 million).




Service: Valley Metro Rail operates 365 days a year, 20+ hours a day, with a 12-minute peak hour frequency.


Trains begin the first full trip of the day at 4:30 a.m., Monday through Thursday from the end-of-line stations. The last full trip of the day begins at 11 p.m., arriving at the opposite end-of-line at midnight. On Friday night, service hours are extended; the last full trip of the day begins at 2 a.m., arriving at the opposite end-of- line at 3 a.m. Saturday morning.


Cost of operations: Valley Metro Rail operations cost was USD31 million for FY15. Cost of operations is supported by rail member cities, passenger fares and advertising.


Rolling stock: In 2007, 50 light-rail vehicles (LRVs) were deployed and there has been no increase in the number of LRVs since then. They can be linked to form trains of up to three vehicles.


Each vehicle is 27.27 metres (90 feet) long, 3.6 metres (12 feet) high, and 2.58 metres (8.5 feet) wide. It features four hanging interior bike racks, space for four wheelchairs and wide aisles to accommodate wheelchairs, air-conditioning, and two driver cabs (one at each end). It has capacity for 66 seated passengers and can comfortably accommodate 175 passengers. The maximum capacity is 226 passengers. The light-rail system can accommodate up to 12,000 passengers per hour.


The trains travel at posted speed limits on city streets, to a maximum of 35 miles/hr. The average speed is 22 miles/hr and the maximum speed is 55 miles/hr.


Power and tracks: Tracks are standard gauge (1,435 mm). Power is sourced from an overhead catenary (750 V DC). The high-voltage lines are typically placed 16 feet above ground. There are 15 substations evenly spread along the line. A typical substation building is 20 feet wide by 40 feet long by 12 feet high.


Fare system: Cash, 1-ride tickets and passes are used for fare collection. The tickets and passes can be purchased at fare vending machines located at each station, online or from retail outlets.


The system operates on proof-of-payment. Passengers must possess validated fare to board. Fare inspectors conduct random checks. Violators are subject to fines ranging from USD50 to USD500.


The 1-ride fare is activated automatically with purchase and allows one ride (on bus or light-rail) within two hours. All-Day, 7-Day, 15-Day and 31-Day passes are accepted on both rail and bus and must be activated prior to boarding. Employer-issued Platinum Pass, Arizona State University U-Pass and other plastic cards must be validated before each boarding.




In FY 2015, Valley Metro served 14.27 million passengers, resulting in an average weekday ridership of approximately 44,000 passengers.


The five busiest stations are Montebello/19th Avenue, 19th Avenue/Camelback, 44th Street/Washington, Mesa Drive/Main Street, and Van Buren/1st Street.


Figure 1 provides the annual ridership.


Figure 1: Annual ridership (million passengers)


Source: Valley Metro


Expansion plans


The Regional Transportation Plan, produced by the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) identifies seven future, high-capacity transit corridors, creating a 106.21-km (66-mile) system by 2034.


Construction has already started on one extension – the Central Mesa LRT extension Phase II (Gilbert Road extension). The joint venture (JV) of Stacy and Witbeck and Sundt is the construction contractor.


Table 1 provides the expansion plans.


Table 1: Expansion plans




Current status

Estimated cost (USD million)

Expected opening

Central Mesa LRT extension – Phase II (Gilbert Road extension) 

3 km (1.86 miles)

Mesa Drive to Gilbert Road

Under construction



Tempe Streetcar

4.8 km (2.59 miles)

Rio Salado Parkway/Marina Heights to Mill Avenue, a downtown loop on Mill and Ash Avenues, Apache Boulevard and Dorsey

Competitive procurements for streetcar vehicles and design, construction and artist contractors are underway



Capitol I-10

17.7 km (11 miles)

Downtown Phoenix, through the State Capitol area, to approximately 79th Avenue and the I-10 West freeway

Environmental assessment report being prepared.



South-Central Phoenix Corridor

8 km (5 miles)

Downtown Phoenix to Baseline Road, via Central Avenue

Environmental assessment report prepared.



Glendale high-capacity light rail transit

8.04 km (5 miles)

Westbound to the city of Glendale through Phoenix

Feasibility study underway.



Northwest Phoenix light-rail extension – Phase II

3.2 km (2 miles)

Extend west on Dunlap Avenue, north on 25th Avenue and across 1-17 near Mountain View Rd. with a terminus on the west side of the freeway near Metrocenter Mall

Environmental studies underway.



Northeast extension

19.31 km (12 miles)

SR-51 Corridor to Paradise Valley Mall

Feasibility study underway.



Notes: * - does not include design and construction cost; FTA – Federal Transit Administration; NA – Not available

Source: Valley Metro


Recent developments


The following developments were recorded in October 2016:


In March 2016, Valley Metro opened the Phoenix Northwest LRT Extension Phase I.


In January 2016, Valley Metro invited bids to supply LRVs. The scope of work includes design, manufacture, testing, delivery and complete performance testing of the base order of LRVs. The contract will include options for up to 58 additional LRVs over a seven-year term.  The last date for the submission of bids was October 17, 2016.