It just celebrated its three-year anniversary, and it’s safe to say METRO Light Rail has become an integral part of the daily commutes of many Tempe residents.
With its ridership growing by more than a million passengers annually, METRO is quickly becoming a symbol of a cleaner, more efficient city.
However, light rail is not the sustainability godsend some may misinterpret it to be. It was actually introduced solely as a transportation system that would be cheaper than driving a car, and could get passengers to their destination without stress and traffic.
A decrease in congestion was one of the desired effects. But the environmental benefit was never the main concern.
Rob Melnick, executive dean of Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability, says that it’s going to require more than a few cars coming off the road to make a true difference.
“Yes, when you take fewer cars off the street, you are introducing less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” he says. “But for every person not driving their car, light rail is still using a boatload more electricity, which is generated from fossil fuels.”
Melnick says that light rail acted as a “coming of age” for the Valley, and until it expands to reach a larger number of people, it will not be a major source of environmental efficiency.
Phoenixwas built as a sprawling, auto-centric city, as a rebellion from the classic European layouts of New Yorkand Boston, which stand out among the nation’s “greenest cities.” That’s due in large part to their concentrated public transportation systems, while Phoenix continues to rank in the lower tier.
“Here, it is a novelty to take the train, and it will take a long time to break the habit,” says Melnick.
The light rail project faced its fair share of opposition in 2004, when Proposition 400 was being readied for a public vote.
While the main concern at that point was overreaching the state’s budget, light rail’s effect on local economy and neighborhood regeneration is something few had foreseen.
The measure ultimately passed and construction was begun, resulting in benefits beyond simply moving passengers more efficiently.
Prior to 2004 and starting in the mid-1990s, Apache Boulevard, a thoroughfare in north Tempe, had become a haven for prostitutes, dive bars and drug addicts. After the opening of light rail stops along the way, the area was mostly able to shake off its rough reputation and, in recent years, has become a popular housing area for ASU students.
This effect was echoed throughout numerous Tempe neighborhoods, with economic development along the rail line providing a new lease on life.
Onnie Skekerjian,Tempe council woman and chair of the Council Committee on Technology, Economic and Community Development, says she never anticipated a $4 billion economic boost for Tempe.
“I’m a Republican, and I did not vote for Proposition 400,” Shekerjian admits. “The light rail was a very expensive form of transportation, but the fact that it cleared up a blighted area and brought in immense economic development is something that made me very interested.”
Shekerjian says the Tempe City Council hopes to replicate the economic growth of the light rail with a proposed METRO modern streetcar line. If built, the line will circle downtown Tempe and link it with popular venues like Gammage Auditorium and Tempe Marketplace.
Naomi Ngui, a third-year student at ASU, feels positive about the project. “It would be great to connect all the social spots around Tempe. I use light rail five days a week already, and this would make me want to use it more,” she says.
The city council is currently awaiting federal funding before advancing the project, but Shekerjian sees the benefits as vast.
“The light rail exceeded what it set out to do. There is a value of these systems beyond just transporting people,” she says.
Daniel Rasmussen, a graduate of Corona del Sol High School, is a communications major at Arizona State University.