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Regional mobility solutions lag in Northwest Valley

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NORTHWEST VALLEY — Imagine hopping on a train leaving a sporting event or a festival in downtown Phoenix and being in Glendale, Sun City, Peoria or Surprise in mere minutes. Or returning from a doctor’s appointment or shopping trip with the same efficiency.

While the northwest Valley has some connections to the region’s public transportation, Uber or Lyft services or partner programs in conjunction with Valley Metro Rail to do this, there have not been any regional transportation solutions created for the area.

Despite massive growth that has seen the region’s population swell beyond 650,000 people along with the increase of attractions, commercial and occupational development in the area, no light rail or other type large-scale express service is even in the planning stages for this quarter of the 11th largest metro area in the U.S.

What is holding up progress can be boiled down to three things: massive costs of vehicles and construction, lack of prioritization and too many other expensive, resource-consuming priorities to keep up with, according to local officials.

A battle for solutions

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted and exacerbated some major Valley issues, such as the housing crunch, economic disparities and lack of access to health care. However, these were starting to consume many of the pooled resources of northwest Valley communities before the pandemic.

Valley Metro has published a long-term goal of establishing a commuter rail along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line between Wittmann and downtown Phoenix, running through the Northwest Valley. However, the target completion date for that project is in 2035.

The last discussion of anything related to regional transportation in the city of Surprise was being able to complete its two outbound and two inbound limited-stop bus routes from a Park and Ride to downtown Phoenix during the pandemic. Surprise has formed agreements for paratransit but does not have regular bus routes that connect riders to either neighboring communities or Valley Metro Rail directly.

Glendale has many stops within the Valley Metro bus system, but regional solutions have not been a major item of discussion there of late, either. In 2019, Glendale’s Citizen Transportation Oversight Committee, appointed by council to advise them on transportation issues, recommended the future of transportation as one of two priorities to focus on, along with road pavement management.

Glendale, however, has become more of an obstacle to a potential light rail route, opting in 2017 not move forward with a 7-mile section of light rail that would have brought the trains into the city’s downtown. Because of the region’s city boundaries, extending light rail into the northwest Valley without Glendale would be nearly impossible.

Searching for alternatives

Peoria has focused on several innovative programs that have improved in-city transit for the disabled and around its biggest shopping areas, but there hasn’t been a great deal of discussion about longtime regional solutions there, either. 

Kristina Perez, spokeswoman for Peoria, said the city recently developed a Transit Master Plan to outline possible future expansions to be considered as the city continues to grow.

“We have seen ridership on transit recently trend upward, as COVID had a severe impact on ridership,” Perez said. “We continue to monitor the ridership and are working with our city partners in the region to share information with riders about the safety and cleaning efforts to provide a safe environment on all transit services.”

Peoria provides commuter/express bus service from 83rd and Grand avenues, at the city’s park and ride with service along Grand to downtown Phoenix. Peoria residents also use two other express routes that originate near the Glendale/Peoria border to travel to downtown Phoenix for work.

Peoria has worked to improve intracity transit with its Peoria On The Go bus routes. Originally developed prior to the pandemic, the routes came back online in October in an expanded format on weekends with destinations to the city’s shopping and dining hubs.

While Glendale’s issues with light rail have pushed that effort to the backburner in the region, it isn’t dead. The the Maricopa Association of Governments produced a study that listed both Wittmann or a Buckeye light rail line buildouts, from downtown Phoenix, at a combined cost of $2.5 billion.

“Planning for future service expansions is a cooperative effort involving all cities in the Valley and both Valley Metro and MAG,” Perez said. “While each city evaluates the transit needs for their community, expanding service that crosses into other jurisdictions involves each of the cities involved and the regional planning agencies.

Surprise Deputy City Manager and Public Works Director Mike Gent echoed the importance of working with MAG to find funding for larger regional projects.

“The City of Surprise has prioritized making transit options available for those residents with disabilities, senior citizens, income qualified, and veterans,” Gent said. “MAG is where much of the coordination, research, discussion, and planning for regional issues such as safe transportation occur. The city has historically relied heavily on the federal, state, and regional funding that come through MAG to fund transportation projects and that will likely continue well into the future.”

Building in the region

Valley Metro, the organization charged with building, maintaining and operating the regional public transportation infrastructure and coordinating transit services to residents of metro Phoenix, hangs its hat on being multi-modal. However, Northwest Valley residents still don’t have any direct access to any regional transportation except via a few bus routes.

Valley Metro’s only ongoing light rail construction in the West Valley is an extension of a Phoenix route that extends a line from Dunlap and 19th avenues, across Interstate 17 to the former Metrocenter mall area. That extension will stop miles short of tapping into the northwest Valley.

Lacking light rail leaves buses as the best viable transportation method for the region. The results of Valley Metro’s Northwest Valley/Sun Cities Implementation Plan, released in January, call for some solutions, but mostly increases in bus routes.

Working together

While those starts are small, groups like the Sun Cities Home Owners Association Roads and Safety Committee, which are not directly involved in efforts to improvement public transit in the Northwest Valley, are supportive of those efforts.

“We primarily focus on road and safety issues within Northwest Valley,” said Jim Powell, committee chairman. “But we do want the best opportunities for our residents.”

He said Northwest Valley Connect helps provide rides to those who do not have their own transportation. The nonprofit organization Benevilla also spearheads a work group that is researching transit options.

“We support any efforts to improve public transit in the community,” Powell said.

Northwest Valley Connect Executive Director Kathryn Chandler says there are many outstanding, published plans available that highlight the need and efforts for the region, including Valley Metro’s Northwest Valley Sun Cities Transit Implementation Study. However, without proper funding or provision of other resources, along with coordination among local governments and other agencies, plans often collect dust as costs continue to climb.

“Without someone to move things along, it doesn’t go anywhere,” Chandler said. “And for unincorporated areas, like [those in the] northwest Valley, things are even tougher, because at times, there is literally no one advocating for them.”

Along with issues of connecting cities, the northwest Valley includes Sun City and Sun City West, two large, age-restricted unincorporated areas that rely on Maricopa County to be their planning and transit representative.

With the varying needs through Maricopa County, those needs often go unmet and are filled by groups like Northwest Valley Connect, a nonprofit formed by two other groups, the social services group Benevilla and Sun Health to meet at least some of those seniors’ transportation needs.

Chandler said the circular street design of the Sun Cities pose extra challenges, especially when it comes to acquiring funds from regional transportation plans, such as Proposition 400 funds designated to pay for construction of connector roads. The type of connector roads funded in that mechanism are usually part of the Valley’s straight grid system and would require relocating dozens of homes if constructed across built-out communities like the Sun Cities.

“We talk with our elected officials regularly in order to try to get clarifications or exemptions for those sorts of rules,” Chandler said.

The officials Northwest Valley Connect interacts with the most, on funding and legislation issues, include U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, U.S. Rep. Debbie Lesko, state Sen Rick Gray, state Reps. Kevin Payne and Frank Carroll and Maricopa County Supervisor Clint Hickman, Chandler said.

The group leans on lawmakers for, among other things, reforms that would help stem skyrocketing construction costs for transit projects. A June report by Vox Media shows U.S. cost per kilometer of rail construction is about $250 million more than many eastern European countries and about five times the costs incurred by Spain, Finland and Portugal.

Chandler said legislation that promotes electric vehicle purchases, sales and charging, along with autonomous vehicles, would both help reduce emissions and eventually put more vehicles in the hands of rideshare drivers, such as Uber and Lyft, and in the hands of transit services.

Kate King, chair of the Property Owners Residents Association’s Transit Committee in Sun City West, said Maricopa County hiring a transit planner position would help a great deal. Chandler agrees.

“We need someone to help get all the municipalities on the same page, equitably,” Chandler said. “The Maricopa County Department of Transportation is great with road repairs, but they don’t do transit at all. We need one person with real authority, from an organization of real authority. And the tax is a county tax.”

Sun Cities Independent Editor Rusty Bradshaw contributed to this story.

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