City officials ponder trolley route for west Mesa The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

City officials ponder trolley route for west Mesa

City officials ponder trolley route for west Mesa

By Jim Walsh, Tribune Staff Writer

Mesa officials are studying the possibility of implementing a trolley in the western part of the city.

But don’t expect to catch a ride on the new streetcar from Mesa Community College to downtown Mesa anytime soon.

The proposed trolley is still in a preliminary planning stage and such details as the route, length and cost are yet to be finalized.

But the likely 7-8-mile route is starting to reach a level of consensus after three years of planning and paying for it would first depend on voter approval of an extension of Proposition 400, the special tax that helps pay for road and other transportation projects in Maricopa County.

Deputy Mesa City Manager Scott Butler said it is unclear if an extension of Proposition 400, which continued a half-cent sales tax first approved by voters in 1985 for another 20 years in 2004, will be placed on either the 2022 or 2024 ballot.

It appears inevitable that officials will seek authority to extend the tax, which has been responsible for far-reaching transportation improvements throughout the county, including the construction of new freeways, upgrades to arterial roads and public transit improvements such as Metro Light Rail.

After a long run of sweeping and diverse transportation improvements throughout the county, Proposition 400 expires in 2025.

Because a new source of revenue must be secured, the potential Mesa streetcar could be as long as 10 years into the future, when Mesa Mayor John Giles said that west Mesa likely will be very different than it is today.

The plan discussed by Council last week would connect a Mesa trolley loop to the Tempe Streetcar system now under construction.

The Mesa loop would eclipse Tempe’s route in miles and serve the Asian District, Mesa Community College, two Banner hospitals and the Fiesta District before connecting to downtown along Country Club Drive.

“The character of West Mesa is going to change,’’ Giles said. “It’s going to be a newer, more urban, more dense part of the city.’’

Hundreds of new apartment units already are on the drawing board in that part of the city, adding to hundreds more already under construction downtown.

Giles said “2030 is probably very optimistic’’ as a potential timeline for a Mesa’s streetcar system to get underway.

Council members Jen Duff, Francisco Heredia and Dave Luna support the plan while Vice Mayor Mark Freeman is skeptical about demand for the service and hesitant to increase the burden on Mesa taxpayers for operating and maintaining the system if ridership proved inadequate to offset costs.

Duff noted the high cost of housing and said a Mesa streetcar system could give residents the option of saving money by not owning a car.

If there is reliable transportation for employment and shopping, “a car is a choice, not a burden,’’ Duff said. “We are one of the worst air quality places in the nation. That’s pretty sad.’’

Heredia, who serves on the Valley Metro board, said, “The more opportunities we have to bring people to this part of town, the better for Mesa. We can lift them up.’’

But Freeman said the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about changes in American society, such as more employees working from home or going to the office on a staggered schedule.

Although the Union office complex at Dobson and Rio Salado has leased the first of several buildings planned on the site, there are questions about whether additional buildings will be added or delayed, he said.

“Nobody has a crystal ball to say what will happen in the future. We know there is less demand for Class A office space,’’ Freeman said. “Do we spend millions and millions to put in a streetcar route when transportation might change and be outdated’’ by such innovations as driverless cars?

He noted Mesa also pays heavily to support the Metro Light Rail and the streetcar system would increase that burden.

“At the end of the day, we have to protect the taxpayer,’’ Freeman said.

Jodi Sorrell, Mesa’s transit services director, said the city pays $13 million a year to operate and maintain light rail but that cost is offset by about $3 million in revenue from fares and advertising.

She said the long process of obtaining funding for a potential system would likely provide Mesa with more insight on the demand for the service and other issues.

Sorrell said the level of planning so far has determined that a route is feasible and additional analysis is necessary to address other issues.

When the Tempe line was still being planned, for example, officials had to address concerns by residents in historical neighborhoods about overhead trolley lines. The city opted to bury the lines in any affected area.

The Mesa route does not appear to run through any designated historical areas.

“We wanted to show it is feasible without committing to something 10 or 15 years down the road,’’ Sorrell said.

“The purpose of it is connecting Mesa,’’ she added. “You look at something that is a one seat trip. It’s like a direct flight as opposed to using a transfer.’’

Valley Metro transit officials decided that a trolley, which has smaller cars and more stops, would be more suitable for the area than a light rail extension based upon numerous factors, including the high cost, said Deron Lozano, a project manager with the agency.

“Our light rail ridership has been holding steady or increasing prior to the pandemic,’’ Sorrell said.

While some people have no choice but to use public transit to get to work, school or medical appointments, there’s no question that the pandemic has depressed ridership, she said.

“Ridership is down. It’s not just down in the Valley, it’s down nationwide,’’ Sorrell said.

The Mesa Streetcar proposal would more than double the length of Tempe’s novel streetcar project, a 3.1-mile route that loops around downtown Tempe, from Tempe Town Lake, east on Rio Salado Parkway to Tempe Marketplace, and south down Mill Avenue, past Arizona State University and east on Apache Boulevard.

Construction on Tempe Streetcar has virtually been completed and the much-anticipated transit line, patterned after similar projects in Dallas and Nice, France, is expected to open about a year from now after the system is tested, said Amanda Nelson, a Tempe spokeswoman.

The cars will resemble those used on the Metro Light Rail but will be smaller and not linked together. Light rail cars are often combined to handle large crowds picking up fans after Arizona Diamondbacks baseball games at Chase Field in Phoenix.

“The bulk of the construction is done,’’ Nelson said. “It’s getting exciting now. It’s looking real.’’

While Mesa officials said it is too early to develop a cost estimate for the Mesa trolley, the Tempe Streetcar is expected to cost $192 million.

To extend the route, Tempe Streetcar would head down Rio Salado, past Sloan Park in Mesa. It would turn south at Mesa Riverview and head down Dobson Road, before heading east on Southern and eventually north on Country Club Drive to downtown Mesa.

If the plan were to come to fruition, it would create a Mesa loop to circulate riders around west and central Mesa. They could also make connections onto Metro Light rail for travel to other cities.

Lozano said a consensus emerged in the study that the Asian District, Banner Desert Medical Center and Banner Children’s at Desert Hospital, Mesa Community College, the Fiesta District and downtown Mesa, should all be served by a potential Mesa Streetcar.

The Mesa city council did not vote on the proposal but signaled a desire to continue the planning without making a decision for now to build it.

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