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And Then There Were Three… Passenger Rail Alternatives from Phoenix to Tucson

By Eric Jay Toll for Arizona Builder’s Exchange

FinalAlternatives_CommonCorridors_2013June27Like the little engine that could, the passenger rail line between Phoenix and Tucson is chugging through planning, environmental review and studies towards ‘Groundbreaking Station’. Arizona’s Department of Transportation has narrowed seven conceptual routes down to three feasible options.

For those with markers ready, it’s the green, orange and yellow alternatives that move into the next round of the study. The first step in that process is a draft tier 1 environmental impact statement (EIS). Tiered EISs provide the public with increasing levels of detail as the project moves from conceptual stages to design. ADOT plans to release the draft EIS for public comment early in 2014.

The three routes have common origins—Buckeye to Phoenix south of I-10 and along U.S. 60 from Surprise—and all three reconnect to I-10 south of Eloy through Marana and Oro Valley into Tucson. It’s where the rails are built between Phoenix and Marana that differentiate the three.

Green Alternative Parallels I-10

Running along Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson, the Green Alternative rolls through Tempe, Chandler, Casa Grande and Eloy. This is the most direct route between the two metropolitan areas. Trains on this segment will have the fastest travel time between the two downtowns.

Orange Alternative Stretches to Coolidge

The future East Valley population—particularly in Superstition Vistas and San Tan Valley—is the target of the Orange Alternative. The route heads east from Tempe along U.S. 60, then follows the planned North-South Freeway Corridor (AZBEX, February 8) towards Coolidge and Florence, before curving westward to reconnect with I-10 near Eloy. This is the longest of the three routes and traverses what is now mostly undeveloped state land.

Yellow Alternative Links Current East Valley Population Centers

Current Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler and Queen Creek commuters are the beneficiaries of the Yellow Alternative. The route slices southeast from Tempe through the four East Valley cities. It shares the Union Pacific right-of-way into Eloy and then connects with the I-10 alignment into Pima County.

A Teal Alternative is being assessed for planning purposes—but this route is a combination of Yellow and Orange options. ADOT includes it for EIS alternative analysis only.

Agency Cooperation and Federal Involvement

In addition to private rail roads, ADOT works closely with the Federal Transit Administration—the agency likely writing the biggest checks for the project—and the Federal Railroad Administration. City and county governments are heavily involved in the planning and analysis process to determine the best route.

More than 7K people, says ADOT, have participated in the early planning processes to help narrow the route selection to the three semi-finalists. This public and agency participation, combining with technical evaluations, is the basis from which the state selected the routes for further study.

ADOT plans another round of public outreach events in Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties this fall. The agency’s objective is to select a primary route by the end of 2013 and wrap up the studies next year.

The planned rail system will include both express and local service. The express run will have a few stops between Phoenix and Tucson; the local will stop at all stations on the route.

Rejected Alternatives and No Build Option

All environmental studies require a “no build” option to be assessed. This is part of the draft EIS. The rejected routes include Blue—an express bus service on I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson; Red—routing the train through western Pinal County via Maricopa; Purple—connecting to Tucson from Gilbert through Sacaton and Casa Grande.

There is currently no construction schedule and no funding identified to build a rail system between Phoenix and Tucson. ADOT says it will be up to the public and policymakers to decide if the project is feasible and how to generate funding to pay for it.

ADOT maintains a Passenger Rail Corridor Study, at azdot.gov/passengerrail.