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All Aboard: Sky Train will make getting to Sky Harbor a moving experience

This rendering shows what Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport’s next big thing in people-moving, the PHX Sky Train, could look like when it hits the tracks in late 2012.

This rendering shows what Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport’s next big thing in people-moving, the PHX Sky Train, could look like when it hits the tracks in late 2012.

Don’t blink while driving through Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. You’ll miss your terminal and spend another 10 minutes looping around on a motorway modeled on one of those circles in hell.

But the future holds hope – at a cost of nearly $1.6 billion. It’s the automated people-mover, officially known as the PHX Sky Train.

The Sky Train will make it unnecessary to drive into the heart of the airport to catch a plane or ferry passengers to terminals. The first stage will be up and running by 2012, if all goes according to plan.
It would run between the Metro light rail stop at 44th Street and Washington and Terminal 4. The other terminals will have to await Stage 2.

Stage 1 is under construction now.

Jay DeWitt is the Sky Train project manager. Behind the wheel of a small sedan, he tours the Sky Train work in progress. As he pulls out of the Terminal 3 parking lot, he encounters a crawling line of cars.
Slightly frustrated, he says, “This is the reason we’re building the Sky Train. Traffic congestion continues to increase. It’s almost perpetual gridlock.”

And, without the Sky Train, traffic will get worse.

“We’ve got it projected out, and it’s going to be a real serious problem by 2015-2017,” he adds.

He heads east, then south on what used to be Arizona Highway 153, once the shortest and most underused stretch of freeway in the state. It’s now 44th Street. Half of it – from the Grand Canal to Sky Harbor Boulevard – will be refigured into a Sky Train corridor. Cars and trucks will continue to travel on the other half, which will be re- striped to two lanes from four.

“It didn’t really handle a lot of traffic, so we can skinny that down,” DeWitt says.

Crossing over the canal and onto Washington Street, DeWitt pulls into a parking lot just south of Washington. Large shuttle buses come and go. Every 10 minutes, they take passengers from the light rail stop to the airport terminals. It’s a free service. The people-mover will be free, too.

The $1.6 billion cost comes to $625 million for Stage 1 and $945 million for Stage 2. Federal stimulus funds might come into play, but most of the money comes from airport bonds, backed by airport revenue and ticket surcharges.

Every time a ticket is purchased to fly into or out of Sky Harbor, a $4.50 passenger facility charge is included. The money can be used only for airport capital expenses and to pay off airport improvement bonds. The Sky Train fits rights in. Another pot of money is generated from airport parking, shops and restaurants.

Airport spokeswoman Julie Rodriguez reports a decline in revenue since 2007, because of the recession. But she noted that the PHX Sky Train construction schedule has not been affected.

The stimulus money, if granted, would make Stage 1 more than just a one-terminal stop. The additional $122 million would add Terminal 3 as a full stop in 2013, with a walkway to Terminal 2. Without stimulus money, terminals 3 and 2 would be added in Stage 2, which also would connect the Sky Train to the rental-car center west of 24th Street.

Passengers headed for Terminal 1 will be disappointed. There is no Terminal 1. It was demolished long ago.
Near the light-rail stop, DeWitt points to an overhead bridge that resembles two parallel sidewalks. At the moment, it’s a bare concrete structure. When completed, however, it will have enclosed moving walkways, much like the corridors between airport terminals. Light rail passengers will take escalators or elevators up to the walkway, which will take them across the light rail track, Washington Street and the Grand Canal to the Sky Train station.

“This bridge is really the first true construction of the Sky Train,” DeWitt says.

It was completed in December 2007, ahead of the light rail going into service. After that, building the bridge around moving trains would have been all but impossible, DeWitt adds.

The people-mover station won’t be just a light-rail connector. It will have parking to pick up and drop off passengers – saving people the headache of driving into the heart of airport congestion. It will reduce airport gridlock as well. Airline passengers might be able to get boarding passes and check in baggage at the Sky Train station as well, though plans for that remain up in the air.

Otherwise, the Sky Train will have room for luggage. Each train will consist of two or three cars, made by Bombardier of Germany, which also makes bullet trains. The Sky Train’s top speed will be 37 mph.
The cars won’t roll down tracks, but will run on rubber tires. A centered guide rail will provide electrical power and steer the train along an elevated, dedicated corridor with no cross traffic.

Fully automated, the Sky Train won’t have an engineer or a driver.

Trains will arrive at the station every three to four minutes. Each car will hold about 50 passengers. As the train leaves, riders will pass over a parking lot sitting atop the remnants of a thousand-year-old civilization. Though buried, the work of the early Hohokam will not be lost to history. Archaeologists have been digging through the site to make a thorough inventory of Hohokam canals and crop fields.

At the dig site, archaeologist Hoski Schaafsma stands over a wheel barrow with a shovel. He’s surrounded by a network of a trenches and leveled plots. He and his team with Desert Archaeology Inc. have discovered more than canals that watered the fields. He uncovered some of the fields themselves.

“We’re able to identify field surfaces,” Schaafsma says. It’s the first time such ancient fields have been surveyed in the Phoenix area.

The Hohokam grew squash, cotton and corn, among other crops.

Todd Bostwick, the city archaeologist for Phoenix, said the dig wouldn’t have been possible without the Sky Train construction.

Archaeological surveys often are a part of projects requiring federal approval, and the Sky Train was going nowhere without a thumbs-up from the Federal Aviation Administration. The city has the same requirement to survey significant archaeological sites before they’re paved over, Bostwick adds. The survey was included in the cost of construction.

“It’s through construction that we make our greatest advances in archaeology,” he adds.

The dig at the Sky Train site was examined first in the 1970s. Modern methods, however, have added new tools. The age of canals can be pinpointed more accurately using a technique known as luminescent dating.

If Bostwick had a west-facing window, he’d have a good view of the Sky Train as it rolls by. His office at the city’s Pueblo Grande Museum sits across 44th Street from the station site. The museum offers visitors a glimpse into Hohokam life, with ruins of dwellings and a ball court. Here at Pueblo Grande, the Hohokam operated the head gates for one the Valley’s largest canal systems, drawing water from the Salt River.

Sky Train passengers won’t see a Salt River flowing freely. It’s dry now, having been dammed up and diverted miles upstream. The riverbed itself was moved south to make room for another runway at Sky Harbor.

Riders headed to the airport, however, will see the Grand Canal on their left, before the train swings south along 44th Street. At Sky Harbor Boulevard, it will make a stop at the east economy parking lot, a creative name for long-term parking. Then it heads to Terminal 4.

Perhaps the highlight of the brief journey will be a chance to see a jumbo jet taxiing underneath the elevated Sky Train corridor.

The corridor is being built now. Support will come from columns as high as 85 feet. They’re anchored deep in the ground as well, DeWitt says.

“For every foot we go above the ground, we go about a foot below the ground,” he says.

All that work near the terminals takes a lot of coordination to make sure construction crews and taxiing jets don’t end up occupying the same space at the same time, says Allan Bliesmer, operations manager for the general contractor, Hensel Phelps Construction Co.

“You’ve got to take a lot of care in planning with the airport,” Bliesmer says. Schedules are coordinated with airport operations, the FAA and individual airlines.

“We actually plan down to the day, and there are very special procedures that we follow,” he says.

It’s not Hensel’s first people-mover, Bliesmer says. The company built one for Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. It connects five terminals and is inside the security cocoon.

“Half their traffic is connecting flights,” Bliesmer says. “It’s different for Phoenix.”

When people arrive in Phoenix, they’re not looking to catch another flight. Phoenix is their destination. That’s especially true in November, when the people-mover is packed with arriving snowbirds.

They’ll pack it again in May, flying north for the summer.

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