Riding the Rails
Work to Start on $1.3 B Light Rail Project
Work is about to start in earnest on an ambitious plan to
remake the Phoenix area's transportation system, with the
new, $1.3 billion, 20-mi. light- rail system.
The project stretches from northwest Phoenix through downtown
and then east to Tempe and Mesa.
Although construction on the first line sections isn't scheduled
to begin until January, designers and contractors from around
the Valley are already hard at work on various aspects of
the project, which is slated for completion in 2008.
Crews from FNF Construction of Tempe are in the final stages
of a $2.3 million bridge job that becomes the main access
for a new, $64 million maintenance and storage facility near
52nd Street and Washington. Officials from Valley Metro, the
region's mass transit authority, are eyeing an August start
on the new facility, which will handle up to 100 cars.
The project is funded through a combination of sales tax revenue
and bonds issued by Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa, and federal funds.
More than 60 engineering firms are involved, and once the
project is moving along, 250 to 300 subcontractors will be
involved. Some of the contracts require a two-step proposal
while others will be hard bid.
Many of the project's details are still working through the
system, but Valley Metro officials said the project would
have a profound impact on transportation as well as economic
"Every city struggles with an urban core, but light rail
has been a factor that has transformed cities where it is
built," said Valley Metro CEO Richard Simonetta. "In
some of the Western cities, you find development that could
have occurred anywhere occurs on the rail line. Rail helps
organize development in a corridor that can sustain density."
Although the project has faced opposition, rising gas prices,
more freeway congestion and recognition of the benefits of
light rail are winning people over.
"There are a lot of folks involved and we are experiencing
a lot more support than objections," said Fred Tallarico,
an engineer with the Phoenix office of Carter & Burgess,
a project administrator. "More and more people are recognizing
the Valley needs mass transit. The light- rail line will definitely
The massive project is being bid in five line packages, with
sections ranging from 2.27 mi. to 5.39 mi. in length. Each
section is scheduled to take two years to construct.
AZTEC Engineering has the first line segment and David Evans
& Associates has the second line segment. Both are Phoenix
firms. The Phoenix offices of Stantec Consulting and Jacobs
Civil have sections three and four, with HDR working on section
The system begins at 19th Avenue and Bethany Home Road in
northwestern Phoenix with the first of 28 passenger stations.
The line then jogs to the east at Camelback Road and 19th
Avenue, moving along Camelback before taking a turn to the
south on Central Avenue.
The line heads east again at Washington Street and follows
that alignment to Priest Drive, where a bridge will carry
the rail cars over Tempe Town Lake. The line jogs through
Tempe and then straightens out on Apache Boulevard, continuing
east to the final stop on Sycamore Street and Apache Boulevard/Main
Street in Mesa.
The actual railway consists of two steel tracks embedded in
concrete. Original plans called for an application of gravel,
but public concerns led designers to choose concrete, except
in Mesa. The system operates on two parallel tracks with the
rails protected by a curb. The rails are standard gauge and
the top of the rail is flush with the pavement.
Valley Metro recently spent $115 million to purchase 36 cars
from Japanese manufacturer Kinkisharyo-Mitsui. Each car holds
more than 150 people and weighs 50 tons, with initial plans
to run two-car configurations. Valley Metro officials estimated
the cars would run 10 to 15 minutes during peak load times
and 20 minutes during off-peak times.
Designers are also planning for a six-minute schedule. The
light rail cars can hit speeds up to 55 mph, although 25 mph
is an average speed.
"These trains are very quiet," said Robert Ball,
a project manager for Valley Metro.
"They are so quiet, that almost becomes a problem in
itself," because people may not hear the trains coming.
Ball said Valley Metro is undertaking an extensive outreach
program to educate citizens about light rail Valley Metro
officials estimated the system would see 26,000 boardings
a day, with that number nearly doubling to 50,000 boardings
a day by 2020.
The system may be extended to Metro Center in Phoenix and
The light rail is powered by electricity from overhead wires
mounted on 18-ft.- high poles. Fourteen substations along
the route will convert the regular electric load to a nominal
750 volts DC to power the train cars.
The light- rail project is using a "predictive priority"
system at intersections to prevent traffic back-ups and congestion
and to protect motorists and pedestrians. Sensors will loop
throughout the system to alert intersections when a train
Architects have completed the preliminary designs for 28
stations and the five transit centers, where buses, parking
areas and the light rail connect. In general, the stations
are 280 -ft. long by 16 -ft. wide. Some of the stations are
in the middle of the street while others are on the side.
Platforms typically contain ticket- vending machines, information
on arrivals and departures, benches, shelters, lighting and
other amenities. There is also an art budget for the stations
The stations were designed with the Valley's climate in mind
and feature an extensive amount of shading. Designers teamed
with Arizona State University and did extensive research into
materials that could stand the test of time under the desert
Designers settled on a polycarbonate coated and woven fiber
fabric that doesn't gain a heat load. They are also perforated
steel shades mounted both horizontally and vertically to achieve
"The first thing we looked at was addressing the shading
and cooling needs," said Betsy Moll, the architectural
manager for Valley Metro. "The woven fabric was the material
that made the most sense in the desert heat.
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