Arizona has a reputation as one of the most conservative states in the star-spangled republic. However, the three-year-old Light Rail system in Metro Phoenix points out the persistent diversity on the Arizona political scene.
Light rail runs from the edge of Mesa into central Phoenix, serving university campuses, the international airport, and the Phoenix cultural, entertainment and financial districts. As of early 2012, it also ran through the heart of Democrat Metro Phoenix, crossing four of the five Phoenix-area electoral districts that were dominated by Democrats in the state House of Representatives — districts that provide close to half the Democrat strength in the state House. One would almost conclude that Democrats (disproportionately Latinos, blacks, gays and young people) are drawn to transit-friendly areas. [November 27, 2012: New maps, new state legislature. The train crosses still crosses four state electoral districts, but the Democrats now hold five of the eight seats within the new boundaries.]
We rode about 50 blocks on January 9, from the airport to the Phoenix cultural centre. The New York Times has claimed that this is essentially a tourist and party train; we saw young mothers with kids, office and constructon workers, and five or six cyclists (with bikes) per car.
Light rail is operated by a volunteer consortium of six cities within the Phoenix region — Chandler, Glendale, Mesa, Peoria, Phoenix, and Tempe — a grouping that winnows out some more conservative (and sprawling) jurisdictions such as Scottsdale. The largest city, Phoenix (population 1.5 million) elected a Democratic mayor, Greg Stanton in 2011. He differed sharply from his Republican opponent during the campaign on the need for rapid transit expansion.
“Having watched my dad ride the city bus to work every day, I am a huge advocate of public transportation and know what an important tool it is for economic development. Our current Light Rail lines are only the backbone of the system, and we must expand it for continued success.”
There are continued calls in Metro Vancouver for a switch to Phoenix-style light rail and away from the more costly Skytrain technology. Light rail is certainly more visually attractive inside and out; it is also slower than Skytrain for much of its run, stopping at the occasional traffic signal and cruising at perhaps 55 kilometres per hour on city streets. In terms of daily ridership, Phoenix Metro reports 2011 weekday ridership of 40,000 people on a 45-kilometre line; TransLink in Metro Vancouver reported 425,000 weekday boardings in June 2011 on its 70- kilometre Skytrain system. Reasons for this gap would include a denser urban structure in Metro Vancouver and superior transit bus service; and much lower fuel and parking costs in Phoenix.
Phoenix is building Skytrain as well as LRT; an impressive new system will serve the vast international airport property and connect with Metro Light Rail, opening in 2013.