Streetcar Support Depends on Funding

By: Mark Mitchell

Mark Mitchell

Tempe has always been a leader and ahead of its time when it comes to public transit and transportation. I am proud that our city fully embraced and popularized Valley Metro Light Rail, and that our voters supported the concept of commuter rail at a time when all other Valley cities did not.

In the great tradition of Tempe’s forward-thinking vision for transit, I also support the concept of a downtown street car project.  But we need to make sure it can be planned out and effectively implemented. This project holds tremendous potential to have a positive impact on our community, particularly Mill Avenue and downtown.

However, I have numerous questions and concerns about this project’s feasibility – questions that I believe are shared by Tempe taxpayers.

The 2.6 mile Tempe street car line cannot be built without federal funding. Local taxpayers would pay two thirds of the cost, while the final third would be matched by federal transit funds. However, in my recent meetings in Washington with the Under Secretary of Transportation, he stated that we have an existing revenue problem. The current gas tax is not covering existing programs.  If the current gas tax does not cover existing programs, how can it cover a new street car project?

Congress has extended the current gas tax until March, but has not addressed the long-term sustainability of our transit funding source.

In addition, the proposed operating budget for this project relies on one-time local revenue sources from the sale of property purchased with transit funds. We do not yet have clarification from Tempe city staff if that revenue can be used for operating the street cars or for capital projects only. I am concerned that a one-time money source can be budgeted for a longtime ongoing expense. What happens when the money runs out?

I also do not support a proposal to use revenue from advertising throughout the street car route to help pay for the project. I want to hear new ideas on how to make this concept work without requiring a major rewrite of Tempe’s sign ordinance just for this project.

I have other concerns, including the fact that even with questionable or unsustainable revenue streams this project would run a deficit in its projected operation budget for its first four years. But my primary concern is that Tempe’s current transit fund – hit hard by the ongoing recession – is operating at a deficit now. We have already cut millions of dollars from our transit budget, and now we want to add a massive new project?

Given the information that has come forward about this project so far, it doesn’t make economic sense at this time.

Tempe is a well-balanced city with a vibrant downtown and distinct neighborhoods. A streetcar could be a key part of that balance. However, our challenge is to maintain and improve what we have in a realistic and well-thought-out manner. When I see that for this project, it will have my support.

 Editor Note:  Mark Mitchell is currently a Tempe City Councilman who is running for Mayor of Tempe

Streetcar misconceptions addressed at Tempe forum

Streetcar misconceptions addressed at Tempe forum

Dianna M. Náñez – Sept. 20, 2011 11:15 AM
The Arizona Republic

Political and transit leaders are fighting misconceptions about the modern streetcar transit system proposed for Tempe.

“It’s not going to cause the same kind of lengthy construction we saw with light rail,” Tempe Councilwoman Shana Ellis said at a public forum hosted at Tempe High School earlier this month.

Residents who live along the line got their first look at the location of the 13 stops along the 2.6-mile streetcar route. Transit and city officials were quizzed on the streetcar’s $130 million price tag as well as on the pros and cons of the project, which is scheduled to begin construction next year and be complete by 2016.

The route will run north on Mill Avenue from Southern Avenue to Rio Salado Parkway, then west to Ash Avenue, south to University Drive, east to Mill and then south on Mill to Southern.

One of the biggest worries for Tempe businesses and homeowners near the route is the disruption construction will cause.

While business owners are excited that the streetcar will create a convenient transit system to drive more consumers downtown, some worry about a construction nightmare similar to the years-long headaches experienced when the Metro light-rail line was built.

Some business owners on Apache Drive where the light rail was built have blamed light rail for driving away customers who wanted to avoid traffic restrictions.

Metro CEO Steve Banta said that because streetcar tracks do not have to run as deep as light rail’s, there is often less need to move utility lines, which will minimize construction. When a streetcar system was built in Portland, Ore., the track was installed at a pace of three blocks every three weeks, Ellis said.

Unlike light rail, which operates in an exclusive lane, the Tempe streetcar will operate in the same lane as automobile traffic. Tempe officials have said that much of the sidewalks could remain intact because no exclusive lane would need to be built. Portions of the street could potentially be reopened in the evening when construction is stopped. That would help downtown Tempe businesses that see much of their business at night, Ellis said.

Streetcar vehicles operate as single cars and are smaller than light-rail trains. The system typically runs on an overhead electrical line. But Metro brought a hybrid streetcar manufactured by Japanese-based Kinkisharyo to Tempe last week so residents could get an idea of what the units look like. The hybrid streetcar can run on a lithium-ion battery or overhead electric line.

Tempe isn’t expected to choose a manufacturer until next year. But if it chooses a hybrid car the route is short enough that it could potentially be built without an overhead line, said Kinkisharyo project manager Bill Kleppinger. That could save $5 million a mile in construction costs. However, that cost would be offset by how often batteries would need to be replaced, which is unclear because the technology is so new.

Some residents who are frustrated that budget woes have slashed bus operations in recent years have argued against spending $130 million on the streetcar.

That money should go to creating a solid bus system, something the Valley still lags behind in compared with similarly sized metropolitans, said Robert Taylor, who owns a home along the proposed route.

Taylor is so against the project that he paid to have an anti-streetcar T-shirt made especially to wear to the streetcar public forum at Tempe High School.

“I don’t think it’s going to pay for itself,” Taylor said. “Being a government-funded development why don’t we get to vote on it?”

Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman has argued that the streetcar will attract development because investors are more likely to build along a track, which is permanent, as opposed to a bus line that can be moved at any time. Hallman reminded an audience last week previewing the hybrid streetcar that light rail has spurred an estimated $4 billion in development in Tempe.

Banta pointed to Portland, a city that saw much development and redevelopment after building a streetcar system, as evidence of how an economy can be spurred

Tempe Street Car Project Update / Open House

Date: Tuesday September 6,2011
Time: 6-8 p.m. open house
Location: Tempe High School, Cafeteria
N.W. Corner of Mill & Broadway

Tempe Streetcar

Plans are in motion to construct track on Mill Avenue for a 2.6 million dollar streetcar. My understanding is that the Federal Government will pay for the construction cost however Tempe will have to pay the operating cost.   In your opinion is the streetcar concept a good one or not and why?