Light rail expansion in Phoenix, AZ - When citizen's design desires differ from project-funded design

South Central Expansion. Photo provided by Valley Metro.

South Central Expansion. Photo provided by Valley Metro.

by Joshua Matthews, AICP, Valley Metro in Arizona

The South Central Light Rail Extension, which will add 5.5 miles to the current 26-mile Valley Metro Rail System in Metro Phoenix, will move forward following months of discussion over the design.

A map of the route used at the public meetings. Click image to enlarge.

On June 20, 2018, the Phoenix City Council requested that Valley Metro analyze an alternative that maintains four vehicle lanes on the South Central Extension to the fullest extent possible within the federally-approved environmental footprint. The council also asked that a comprehensive business and community engagement process be conducted, facilitated by an independent facilitator, to specifically discuss the full impacts, costs and benefits of the four-lane design.

The council direction came after community members expressed concerns over the approved two-lane design. The two-lane design reduces the number of lanes from two in each direction to one in a section of the alignment. Community concerns ranged from traffic flow to possible business impacts. Some also shared that they weren’t aware of the early public meetings to discuss the design and felt the community outreach should have been more extensive.

The extension was approved by voters in 2000, 2004 and in 2015; 75 percent of those who live along the line voted in favor of Prop 104, Transportation 2050, which provides the local funding for the extension. With direction from voters, the Phoenix City Council approved the extension route and roadway design in 2014 and acceleration of the project in 2016.

One of the boards used at the public meeting. Click to enlarge.

Why the two-lane roadway design?

The two-lane design achieves the community’s desire for a pedestrian-friendly environment that includes sidewalks, shade, and dedicated bike lanes, while also limiting property takes. The two-lane design also saves nearly 80 businesses that would have otherwise been wholly or partially torn down to fit four lanes of automobile traffic and the trackway. These kinds of property impacts would dramatically alter the character of south Central Avenue. The two-lane design includes bus pullouts to keep vehicles moving when buses are stopped and allows for emergency vehicle access. This design improves public safety in this corridor by providing emergency vehicles with easier access to travel along Central Avenue. The two-lane design was reviewed and approved by Phoenix Fire and is safer for all than a four-lane configuration.

One of the boards used at the public meeting.

Extensive Public Outreach

With council directive, Valley Metro staff and consultants completed an analysis of a four-lane configuration and presented the findings through video simulations and graphical display boards at a series of six public meetings moderated by an independent facilitator, Eric Bailey, Bailey Strategic Innovation Group President.

Open House. Photo provided by Valley Metro.

Open House. Photo provided by Valley Metro.

The meetings were held at multiple locations along the corridor and at various times and days of the week, including weekends, to ensure those interested in attending had an opportunity to do so. Outreach to notify the community of the public meetings included:

Public Meeting. Photo provided by Valley Metro.

Public Meeting. Photo provided by Valley Metro.

  • Bilingual, in-person door-to-door canvassing to more than 5,000 homes, businesses and organizations

  • 14,000+ direct mailings and 10,000+ door hangers

  • 30+ individual meetings with faith-based organizations, community groups, stakeholders and educational representatives

  • Advertisements, emails, social media and bilingual radio and print advertisements

  • Signage at city-owned properties throughout the alignment

  • 18 mobile stations/tabling events at neighborhood gathering places

  • Extended hours at the South Central Community Office

  • Regional on-board bus announcements

  • Local bus stop signage

  • Online community meeting materials

One of the boards used at the public meetings. Visit

As the independent facilitator, Bailey prepared a report to share with the Phoenix City Council detailing his observations during the public meetings and specific findings of the four-lane analysis and risk of losing federal dollars. “An important element of the meetings is the sheer number of questions that were answered,” stated Bailey. “Over the course of the six meetings, over 450 questions were asked and answered! This unprecedented result is a wonderful indication that the South Central Phoenix community has a desire to engage in the process.”

Public Meeting. Photo provided by Valley Metro.

Public Meeting. Photo provided by Valley Metro.

Due to the stage of the project, the lane decision had a significant impact on how the South Central Extension moved forward. FTA guidelines required that, in order to move forward toward a grant, a project must transition from Project Development into the Engineering Phase. This project’s deadline to move into Engineering was November 2018. Any delay taking the project past this deadline would greatly increase the risk of losing federal funding.

On September 26, 2018, the Phoenix City Council voted 6-2 to continue to move forward with the existing two-lane design for the South Central Light Rail Extension. Phoenix Mayor Thelda Williams said the South Central project would connect neighborhoods to opportunity and spur economic development in the area.

“We’re pleased with the Phoenix Council decision and now the hard work begins,” said Scott Smith, Valley Metro CEO. “We recognize the community has needs and we are willing to do whatever it takes to benefit them by connecting communities and enhancing lives.”

Initiative to stop the light rail expansion

One of the boards used at the public meetings. Click to enlarge.

A petition was filed in November 2018, in an effort to stop future light rail projects in the city of Phoenix. The initiative seeks to amend the city charter to terminate “the furtherance of any light rail extension or any other fixed rail line transit system” in Phoenix. It also seeks to “redirect the funds” to finance infrastructure improvements in South Phoenix and throughout the city. This initiative is specific to the City of Phoenix; it does not currently affect light rail development in other cities. However, it could have repercussions on the future of transportation funding in this region.

The initiative seeks to re-direct Proposition 104 (Transportation 2050) funds for light rail extensions to finance other infrastructure improvements within South Phoenix and the city. Other regional and federal dollars dedicated to rail transit would be unavailable to the city for other uses. Proposition 104 funds only 15 – 20 percent of the total costs of building Phoenix light rail extensions. The majority of funding comes from federal grant programs and regional Proposition 400 dollars that are dedicated exclusively to rail extensions and cannot be transferred to other uses or city projects. The city could potentially lose upwards of $5 billion in federal and regional monies to other cities in this region and across the U.S. who have rail projects moving forward.

The Phoenix City Clerk verified that the initiative contains a sufficient number of valid signatures on January 1, and the Phoenix City Council voted on February 6 to refer the initiative to the August 27 ballot. There is a legal challenge focused on election law concerns from the Arizona Chapter Associated General Contractors.

Work continues

As the city works through its process, the South Central Extension continues to advance. Valley Metro will continue with design and early utility work consistent with the existing policy, which was established by previous voter-approved measures and multiple Phoenix City Council actions.

Continued work is also critical to keeping projects in the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) funding pipeline. More than $3.5 billion in FTA grant dollars, dedicated to fixed guideway/rail projects, is anticipated to support the Phoenix rail capital program. A stop or pause in these projects could cause the city to lose this significant federal investment to other communities nationwide. Related to the South Central Extension, utility work in downtown Phoenix is necessary in 2019 to meet the Phoenix hosting requirements of the Super Bowl in 2023.

Light rail is part of system of services that connects people to education, employment and entertainment; and this project seeks to better connect South Phoenix and its offerings to the rest of the Valley. The South Central Extension is scheduled to open in 2023.

Learn more about the South Central Extension

The extension will connect with the current light rail system in downtown Phoenix, and operate south to Baseline Road. The expansion adds new stations, track, and art elements to the project, and will make the unique offerings of South Phoenix more accessible to people around the Valley; attracting new customers, businesses and jobs to the area. The project also includes a transit hub in downtown Phoenix, improving access to educational opportunities, entertainment and employment centers around the Valley. Learn more at

About Valley Metro

Valley Metro is the regional public transportation agency providing coordinated transit services to residents of metro Phoenix. From regional bus, light rail and paratransit service to alternative commuter solutions, Valley Metro’s core mission is to develop and operate a network of transit services. In 1993, Valley Metro, along with local governments, began funding a regional transit system that now covers 513 square miles. Today, member agencies include Avondale, Buckeye, Chandler, El Mirage, Fountain Hills, Gilbert, Glendale, Goodyear, Maricopa County, Mesa, Peoria, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Surprise, Tempe, Tolleson, Wickenburg and Youngtown. The Valley Metro RPTA Board of Directors set policy for bus and paratransit services. Learn more at

Joshua Matthews, AICP, serves as Planner III for Valley Metro. Matthews has worked in urban planning for the organization since 2013. He has a Bachelor's and Master's Degrees within the field of Urban Planning at Arizona State University.

Published in February 2019

Paul Moberly