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AZ getting $884M for public transit, airport upgrades

The South Central Extension/Downtown Hub will connect with the current light rail system in downtown Phoenix and run south to Baseline Road, according to Valley Metro. The project, one of several upgrades to public transit in the state, also includes a hub in downtown Phoenix, as well as new stations and public art. PHOTO COURTESY OF VALLEY METRO

Major repairs to buses, rail cars and thousands of miles of tracks along with airport upgrades will be made in Arizona thanks to the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Thousands of people, mostly in the Valley, rely on public transportation. According to Valley Metro, in 2022, the light rail, buses and Tempe streetcar provided nearly 32 million rides. Though numbers dropped during the height of the Covid pandemic, ridership is spiking back up. As schools and businesses reopen their doors, residents are once again reliant on public transit to make their daily commute possible.

Some of the money will go toward shortening the public transit system’s repair backlog. The nationwide backlog consists of over 24,000 buses, 5,000 rail cars, 200 stations and thousands of miles of track, signals and power systems. Repairs in Arizona may be greatly needed, as a 2019 WalletHub ranking puts Phoenix in 55th place when it comes to public transportation.

The U.S. Department of Transporation lists the benefits of public transit on its website. Higher usage of public transit leads to better air quality and traffic conditions. When more people use public transit, less fossil fuel is burned. This could lead to better health outcomes, as lower levels of greenhouse gases could lead to lower levels of heart and lung disease. Public transit use also reduces the number of automobile related injuries and deaths.

Last November, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act, which was intended to modernize U.S. infrastructure, including public transit. A statement from the White House called current public transit inadequate and said that current transportation conditions are the largest contributor of greenhouse gases.

There are also plans to upgrade airports. It is predicted that expansion and repairs to public transit and airports will create new jobs and contribute greatly to the local economy and travel.

However, not everyone is on board with the language of the federal act. Researchers at Brookings, an American think tank, say that these federal funds are “business as usual” and do not do enough to address racial inequality. It does not set aside funding for marginalized communities, such as tribal lands or low-income areas.

And despite the bill being bipartisan, most legislators who voted for it were Democrats and most of those who voted against it were Republicans. Many Republicans were against the content included in the bill and felt that it pushed an agenda of climate change and social policy, according to the New York Times.

Arizona public transit continues to undergo several expansions. Many of these changes relate to the Valley Metro light rail. According to the Valley Metro website, the light rail is being expanded west. Currently, the furthest west the light rail goes is 19th and Dunlap avenues. Construction, which will run until 2023, will expand farther north and west.

Valley Metro is also revealing its plans, which mainly consist of expanding the light rail system. Valley Metro is looking to expand the light rail 9.4 miles west along the median of I-10. This expansion will continue to the Desert Sky Transit Center. There are also plans to extend the light rail from downtown Phoenix 1.4 miles to the Arizona State Capitol.

John Bullen, transportation, economic and finance program manager of Maricopa Association of Governments, said, “When it comes to transportation, the public sees them go to construction, and they see that portion of it. But truth be told, there’s this long development, or long lead times that go into it before a project even breaks ground.”

MAG is a research forum for local governments and issues affecting residents.

Valley Metro completed several expansions and projects in the Phoenix metro area over the past few years. One of the most recent examples is the opening of the Tempe streetcar earlier this year. In 2019, Valley Metro introduced a park-and-ride center in Peoria near three bus routes to encourage people to use public transportation.

These expansions are needed to meet the rapidly growing population of Phoenix. During the past five years, Phoenix was ranked the fastest growing city in the United States. Eight of the 15 fastest growing towns and cities in the nation were in Arizona. With 1.6 million people, Phoenix is the fifth largest city in the United States.

One unique challenge Arizona faces is the fact that it is one of the few states that does not have a statewide funding source for transit. “As a result, transit is largely funded through a combination of local, regional and federal revenues,” Bullen said.

Expansions were also made to the light rail including an expansion farther east into downtown Mesa. In 2019, the light rail also introduced an accessible light rail stop on 50th Street near the Ability360 center.

According to the city of Phoenix website, all buses and light rails are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. They are required to accept passengers using mobility devices. However, the city of Phoenix and Valley Metro both offer paratransit shuttles for people with disabilities who are unable to use public transportation.

Even with these services, one Valley resident describes living in Arizona as a wheelchair user inaccessible. Last June, Marcos Castillo, a quadriplegic man living in Gilbert, described his struggle in an Arizona Republic Op-ed. Castillo described having to roll his wheelchair three-quarters of a mile to get to the nearest bus stop and feeling exhausted by the time he gets there.

He described the public transportation system in his hometown of Yuma as “nonexistent.” Castillo said that there are more options in Phoenix, but the options dwindle the farther one goes from downtown. He said this greatly limits where he can live and work. But he is grateful for the funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This act is intended to increase public transportation and therefore accessibility.

The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will give $884 million to Arizona for public transportation. Of that, $499.3 million will go toward Valley Metro. According to a statement from Democratic Sen. Krysten Sinema’s website, Arizona will get $176 million this year. And $99.6 million will go to the Phoenix metro area and $22 million will go to the Tuscon area. This is the biggest investment in the passenger rail system since the creation of Amtrak.

Sinema was one of the co-authors and lead negotiators of the federal act. Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly also signed the bill.

“Our infrastructure law’s once-in-a-generation investments in public transit will fuel jobs and create economic opportunities in communities across Arizona by connecting Arizonans to jobs, schools, healthcare services, and more,” Sinema said in a press release.

Kelly also praised the funding.

“The investments we secured will create good paying jobs, reduce traffic and connect thousands of Arizonans to economic opportunities, which will lay the foundation we need to ensure Arizona remains the best place to live, work, and raise a family,” he said.

As the name suggests, one of the main goals of the act is to grow the job market. Steven Polzin worked as a senior adviser for research and technology at the U.S. Department of Transporation. He is currently a civil engineering professor at Arizona State University.

“Transportation contributes to jobs in two ways; directly in terms of the jobs to build and operate transportation” and secondly by allowing “greater mobility that is critical to the economy as it enables opportunities for people and businesses to better themselves,” Polzin said. “For example, better transportation allows workers to access a greater choice of jobs in a reasonable period of time to better their career and it allows businesses to access a greater set of customers, suppliers and workers.”

Money will also go toward Arizona’s aviation system. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, nearly $348 million is going toward Arizona airports over five years. This is from the $15 billion earmarked for airports nationwide from the federal act. Arizona has 13 major airports, with Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport the largest.

Phoenix Sky Harbor is announcing plans to improve the airport’s infrastructure. At an October 4 news conference, Chad Makovsky, Phoenix Sky Harbor’s director of aviation services, announced some upgrades to the airport. This includes a cross-field taxi to connect the north and south airfields. This will enable planes to take off and deboard more quickly. That will allow passengers to spend less time waiting in the plane.

Though many people thought that the pandemic slowed the economy down, Arizona has proved to be a robust state with a booming population. Experts agree that as public transportation expands, this will lead to better travel options for residents and visitors, as well as new jobs.



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