Metro Rail and Its Impact on the Valley

Since its approval, there has been significant controversy surrounding the T2050 Regional Transportation plan. Now, the entire future of light rail may depend on the August 27th special election. In advance of early ballots hitting mail boxes, For(u)m’s here to review the history and impact of Valley Metro Light Rail.

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Despite the transportation plans being voter approved, the City Council is able to make amendments, and has since voted to temporarily divert light rail expansion funds to road maintenance. Proposition 105 - a citizens’ initiative to be voted on August 27th - stands to permanently defund all future light rail expenditures entirely.

What’s at Stake?

Prop 105 prevents the City from being able to pay for light rail expansions, but because of the measure’s ambiguous language, the measure stands to defund all future maintenance as well, effectively killing rail in the Phoenix. While much of the light rail is paid for by the T2050 sales tax, millions of dollars have come from the federal government; if 105 passes, those funds would be rescinded and given to other cities implementing rail programs.

Setting the Scene

Two of the most powerful drivers of economic development for major metro areas are quality; walkable; and bike-friendly streets, and robust public transit networks. While the Northern U.S. has been capitalizing on this strategy for years, the Sun Belt cities are now taking strides to catch up. In 2000, Phoenix voters approved the first regional transportation plan (T2000) which would expand bus rapid transit (BRT) and establish the state’s first light rail. An extensive, community-driven planning process helped determine the best streets for a rail to connect central and downtown Phoenix to Tempe and Mesa’s urban cores, paid for by a nominal additional sales tax. Fast forward to 2015 when Phoenix voters approved T2050, an updated regional transportation plan, by a 10 point margin. Meanwhile, Tempe began executing its streetcar construction and Mesa continued expanding the East end of the light rail.

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Voter Approval

On August 25th, 2015, Phoenix voters approved an updated regional transportation plan - T2050. The planned expansion will take rail through South Phoenix along central avenue and to the West Valley through the Capitol then along the I-10. Also in 2015, Tempe began executing its streetcar construction and Mesa continued expanding the East end of the light rail.

T2050 slightly increased the transportation-dedicated sales tax to generate just under $17 billion over 35 years. These funds, in combination with state and federal dollars, are to be used on street maintenance, mobility improvements, signal enhancements, road expansions, light rail, bus service, and technological amenities: standard fare for regional transportation plans.

While the plan was approved by a 55/45 vote across the city, turn out was abysmal. On the surface, it appeared that in Districts 7 and 8, the areas most impacted by the South Central extension, the measure passed by a 40 point margin. So why is there pushback from many in South Phoenix against light rail expansion through their community? In 2015, voter turn out was a low 15%, systemic voter suppression hindered non-white populations, and there were many unaddressed language barriers throughout the community engagement process. These failures must be addressed moving forward. Neighbors deserve a voice and a vote in the evolution of their community, and voter approval must be truly representative.

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Ridership, Equity, and Cost to Tax Payer

During its first year of operation, light rail ridership well surpassed expectations, and is currently the 14th busiest light rail in the United States. In 2018, there were just under 12 million boardings across the entire line. According to Valley Metro’s 2017 financial report, the fare payment evasion rate was about 5%, meaning 95% of passengers paid for their rides. Still, all public transit relies on some public subsidy - you’re paying for the light rail whether you use it or not. The good news is that the subsidy was approved by voters in the T2050 plan and is 7 cents for every ten dollars spent. The great news is that subsidizing public infrastructure yields a strong economic return on investment for cities and improves environmental quality for all.

Public transit infrastructure also increases equity across socioeconomic strata. The average Phoenix transit user earns 55% of the area median income. By connecting lower income neighborhoods with business districts in multiple cities, light rail improves economic mobility of residents. Plus, utilizing public transit allows families to reduce transportation costs. In South Phoenix, the next planned expansion area, 28% of residents don’t own a car. Safe, reliable public transit options ensures the cost burden of vehicle ownership is never required to access job opportunities.

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Economic Development

EconWorks conducted a case study on Valley Metro light rail and found that, since the opening of the Valley Metro rail, a total of 302 rail adjacent projects have been completed or are at the planning/construction stage. These projects have brought more than $10 billion in capital investment to the Phoenix Metropolitan Area. Of these investments, 75% has come from private investors and the remaining 25% are public investments. When completed, these projects are expected to result in 22 million square feet (sf) of residential housing, around 17 million sf of commercial and office spaces, and more than 6.5 million sf of public and educational buildings. As of 2017, more than 70% of these developments are completed. Of these completed projects, 28 were adaptive reuse. For(u)m is an avid supporter of adaptive reuse for its numerous environmental benefits as well as economic and social benefits. In addressing concerns of gentrification, adaptive reuse has the potential to maintain neighborhood character while improving storefront opportunities for small businesses.

Credit, Lauren Potter

Credit, Lauren Potter

Risks to Businesses and Neighborhood Change

With any massive, concentrated investment there runs a high risk of gentrification. While this doesn’t have to mean displacement for residents and businesses, it often does. According to one of the few studies on the displacement effects of light rail, construction increases a business’ risk of failure by about 46% for those within 400m of the site.

During Valley Metro’s initial construction, at least 11 businesses closed, moved, or were bought out for the project, all North of Thomas Road. Construction in Mesa led to the closures of 10 businesses along Main Street. Because of the relative lack of businesses in Phoenix’s central city at the time, there were fewer shops at risk of displacement. However, many of the upcoming extension plans run through highly populated regions. To best understand the risks to businesses in the valley, we looked to AZ PIRG Education Fund, which compiled several interviews of business owners that lived through it. For most, fear of construction impacts were the largest concern, but would ultimately benefit from their proximity to the rail.

In South Phoenix alone, there are approximately 200 businesses within half a mile of the planned rail line. While the city and several community organizations are providing technical assistance, supporting those businesses and the community throughout the construction process will be critical to maintaining the character of the neighborhood and ensuring prosperity for those already living in the area. Protecting existing buildings with smaller commercial footprints that encourage small, often locally owned businesses will also reduce the potential negative changes to neighborhoods that receive rail expansion.

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Environmental Impact

Phoenix, effectively in the basin of a mountainous bowl, has been seriously struggling with air quality control in recent years. All forms of high capacity transit reduce CO2 emissions by taking cars off the road, but light rail is particularly effective because it runs on electricity rather than fuel. EconWorks found that across Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa, light rail reduces airborne emissions by 12 tons daily. Of course, CO2 is still emitted to generate the electricity used to power operations. When Valley Metro began using solar energy to power rail operations and their maintenance center, annual CO2 emissions were reduced by an additional 96 tons.


From air quality to economic opportunity, light rail has been improving the Phoenix metro area for over a decade, and continued investment in quality transit infrastructure is critical for the valley’s long-term success. Still, community development is complex, particularly given the unconscionable inequities caused and perpetuated by the Federal, state, and local governments against disenfranchised populations. Ahead of the August 27th vote, it’s important we give due consideration to the impacts of light rail and make sure all factors are weighed accordingly. If you’d like more information on Prop 105 or light rail in general, please reach out to Brookelynn Nisenbaum, Community Planning Manager at [email protected]