In today’s developing field of driverless vehicles, Scott Smith, who as CEO oversees the massive mass transportation system operated by Valley Metro, is excited about the prospect of utilizing autonomous technology.
No, we’re not going to see driverless buses. But Valley Metro is testing the use of autonomous technology to make it easier for more potential passengers to reach buses and light rail.
Smith, who served as mayor of Mesa for six years, weathered the devastating economic impact of the Great Recession. But he fell short in 2014 when he ran for governor in the Republican primary.
In a recent interview, Smith mentioned the planned expansion of light rail, including a hoped-for link to the Capitol, and the possibility of running trains in the median of I-10.
The big question on everyone’s minds is: What will transportation look like in the future? We know that in the last three to five years things have changed in transportation with the advent of Uber and Lyft, electric vehicles, and now autonomous vehicles come on the scene.
Are we talking about driverless buses?
No, we’re talking about driverless cars for right now. We’re talking about connecting riders from their homes or their places of business to one of our bus stops, train stops, park and rides, whatever.
When are we going to see these driverless vehicles?
They’re actually working right now with a controlled group of Valley Metro employees, and probably starting in early 2019 we’re going to expand it.
Where in the Valley is the pilot program working?
In the Waymo service area, which right now is the East Valley – Chandler, and part of Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert.
Where are we on the extension of light rail in Mesa?
The two-mile extension to Gilbert Road is nearing completion. We hope to have the physical work done before the end of the year. Then we’ll begin testing and we hope to have service there by about May 2019.
Are there any other light rail lines in the planning stages?
We have two. One is the South Central extension and downtown hub. It will take light rail all the way from downtown Phoenix down Central Avenue to Baseline, about five miles. Also we’re looking at an extension from the current end of the line at 19th Avenue and Dunlap out to Metrocenter. A third one, phase one, which we call Cap-I 10, will take light rail from downtown out to the state Capitol.
Is there any thought on your part to running trains down the freeway medians?
The plan, once we get past the state Capitol, is the train somewhere about 19th Avenue would go into the freeway right of way. So from there west, it will be in the freeway right of way. It won’t be in the middle of the street.
What is the cost per mile comparison between a freeway median and the middle of a street?
It’s much less expensive to do down the middle of a freeway, because you don’t have to buy right of way. You don’t have to move utilities.
Without giving away any security secrets, how can taxpayers be sure there aren’t a lot of freeloaders getting on the light rail?
We do significant fare compliance work. Last quarter, we did over 300,000 fare checks. What we historically find, we have a 92 to 94 percent fare compliance rate. And so even though we have an open system, which means open platforms with no fare boxes or gates, our compliance is relatively high.
There was a report earlier this year that Valley Metro was considering curtailing and possibly eliminating the 514 Express bus that runs from Fountain Hills through Scottsdale to the Capitol. There was quite a bit of feedback, and Valley Metro said it would study it for another year. What’s your position on that particular route?
That’s a challenging route simply because the ridership in some places, and especially from Fountain Hills to Scottsdale, really varies, and it hasn’t hit the levels that we thought it would. And we have limited resources. We don’t run all the routes that we really want to, and that’s purely a ridership issue. If we have enough riders, we continue the route. On that one, its sort on the ledge – it just hasn’t consistently drawn the riders. And on that one we talk to the cities, to Fountain Hills and Scottsdale. We look and see what the best routes are, what routes they would like us to do, and that’s how we determine where routes go. But it’s got to be supported by riders. We would love to continue service to Fountain Hills, and that is one reason why we didn’t eliminate it. We need to find the right place and right combination so that we can maximize the number of riders that take those routes.
Let’s get off the bus. You had a pretty successful run as mayor of Mesa. Share a couple of major accomplishments.
Not getting thrown out of office – I lasted six years. I think people now, we sort of forget what it was like during that time frame from ‘08 to ‘14. I got into office in June of ’08, and in July I was presented a very, very ugly financial report from the finance office of the city manager that showed our sales tax receipts literally had fallen off the ledge. We were looking at a 65 million dollar deficit. That was revenue that just disappeared because of the Great Recession. We not only handled that crisis, but we built streets and we created new opportunities. For economic development, we attracted Apple to Mesa and didn’t pay Apple one penny. We expanded Boeing and didn’t pay one penny.
How about the Cubs threatening to move to Florida for Spring Training?
That was probably the high spot and low spot. The high spot was we got them to stay. The low spot was – I was really disappointed with the lack of a cohesive regional and state strategy. Basically, people shunned us and left us on our own, even though the Cubs are by all measures the biggest economic driver, the gem of the Cactus League.
When you say people, are you talking about the Legislature?
I’m talking about political leadership, city leadership, regional leadership. We had this incredible regional asset and we were on our own. And we made it work.
You ran for governor in 2014 and finished second to Doug Ducey in the Republican primary. Any thoughts about becoming an elected official again?
I’m happy in what I’m doing right now. I’m not sure how inviting the current environment would be for someone like me, who’s a doer. I have no desire to run for another office right now. I like Valley Metro. I view this as being as much a public service opportunity as being in elected office.