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Train dreams could help solve Az's transportation nightmare

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Rogue Columnist

Train dreams could help solve Az's transportation nightmare

  • A Czech high-speed train.
    martin.hefner/FlickrA Czech high-speed train.

The news stories said that ADOT was seeking our input on its study of passenger rail between Phoenix and Tucson. It isn't seeking my input for reasons that will become apparent, but here goes anyway.

It was always a joke renaming this entity the Arizona Department of Transportation. It was and remains in spirit the Arizona Highway Department, committed to building highways. The glory days were under state engineer William Price (1963-1977), when Arizona could boast some of the finest highways in America, before population growth and underfunding overwhelmed the agency.

Also under Price, the Highway Department began its swerve from serving the public interest to private interests and it's never looked back. You can see an early indication in the odd, seemingly illogical, westward shift the Black Canyon Freeway makes between Northern and Dunlap in Phoenix. This mission became gospel with the metro Phoenix freeway system, most of which was built to benefit private land owners whose worthless desert was suddenly highly profitable because a freeway was coming. The damage done to the city by the ensuing sprawl was catastrophic and is probably irreversible.

ADOT is all about freeways. Anything it has to do with train dreams exists in the folios of well-meaning planners who don't stand a snowball's chance in Gila Bend of ever being realized. What's the Next Big Thing after the misbegotten South Mountain Freeway? Creating an "Interstate 11" between Phoenix and Las Vegas. It's all about the cars and the land hustles. Always.

Externalities are not priced in: The cost in carbon, lost farmland and desert, rising temperatures in the heat island, lost productivity from long commutes. That's part of the scam. "Freeways and highways pay for themselves." Why would any God-fearing real American want to "waste" public money on trains? Of course, those paved wonders don't actually pay for themselves. All transportation is subsidized. We spend a hugely disproportionate share on roads. It more distorts demand than responds to it.

The anti-train sentiment on the part of the loud ones is also odd considering America's close and abiding relationship with the railroad. Nothing could be more American than a train. I thought conservatism was all about conserving the best...

For the vast majority of newcomers: Phoenix had passenger train service as late as the mid-1990s. The unwillingness of state leaders to kick in to maintain the northern main line of the Southern Pacific caused Phoenix to become by far the largest city in America with no Amtrak service. In the 1960s, eight passenger trains a day served Union Station.

ADOT's plan strikes me as impossibly complicated and expensive, hence DOA. Using freeway rights-of-way might seem logical — until one gets into the messy details of re-engineering a system built entirely for cars.

That, and given the fact that most Arizonans have suburban values and no sense of a world beyond the personal car, and the discussion can end here. And yet it shouldn't. I remember taking part in meetings almost a decade ago with Buckeye officials trying to plan their town's future. In a survey of residents, the No. 1 thing they wanted was commuter rail service to Phoenix.

The most logical system would be built in cooperation with the existing freight railways, the Union Pacific and BNSF. The tracks and rights-of-way are already in place. Commuter trains could go to the East Valley, Goodyear, Buckeye, Glendale, Peoria and Surprise. Intercity trains could run between Phoenix and Tucson, and the line to Welton could be reclaimed to restore Amtrak service between Phoenix and Los Angeles.

Also, the system should radiate out of a restored Phoenix Union Station, as is happening in a spectacular way in Denver. Slightly changing the route of the proposed south light-rail line over to Third Avenue would connect light rail (WBIYB) to heavy-rail passenger trains. Greyhound buses should also be moved back downtown and use Union Station. (Some amazing restorations have happened in recent years. In addition to Denver, there's St. Paul Union Depot and King Street Station in Seattle).

It is true that UP can be hostile to passenger service. But its rails host the higher-speed service linking Chicago and St. Louis, as well as some passenger trains in California and Oregon. Like BNSF, the railway would expect the state to kick in to expand track capacity, improve signalling and reduce grade crossings. But much of the UP (former Southern Pacific) trackage in metro Phoenix is barely used now that the economy has become so one-dimensional.

In addition, the UP has business before Congress and federal agencies. The right quiet persuasion from the congressional delegation would ensure a cooperative mindset. (I know this is a leap, but hang with me).

Passenger rail in America is doing better than it has in half a century, especially in metropolitan areas and in linking close-by urban centers. For example, the Amtrak Cascades is a state-supported service with several trains a day between Portland and Seattle, some going as far south as Eugene and as far north as Vancouver, B.C. (This is on top of Sounder commuter trains in Seattle and long-distance Amtrak trains).

North Carolina, hardly a liberal cauldron, hosts trains between Raleigh and Charlotte. Virginia has extended the Northeast Corridor to Richmond and Norfolk. Michigan is preparing to turn its multi-train service between Chicago and Detroit to higher-speed (110-plus miles per hour). Corridor service to St. Louis and Milwalkee is popular and growing. Southern California is a passenger rail hotbed. Several public and private ventures are underway in Florida.

In every case, these trains are running on either existing freight railroads or on lines purchased from those roads. In every case, they started small and expanded from there.

So it's not as if Arizona is so far ahead. It is so far behind. This heavily urbanized state, with a rural interstate highway most of the dismal way between Phoenix and Tucson, lacks basic transportation choices.

All it would take is modest investment, using the best practices and talent from elsewhere, and political leadership.

Of course, if the Republicans take control of the Senate, they will do everything in their power to kill funding for passenger trains. They hate them with a fascinating, pathological venom.

And then, as China has opened the longest (true) high-speed line in the world and passenger rail leaps ahead elsewhere, we will be even further behind.


This commentary was originally posted on Rogue Columnist.

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic, and retired as the economics columnist of the Seattle Times in 2019. Talton is also the author of 12 novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries, which are set in Arizona.

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