ADOT finalizes three proposed routes for Phoenix-Tucson commuter rail service

July 08, 2013

The Arizona Department of Transportation has released a new map that identifies three possible routes for its dream project, a proposed commuter rail service linking Phoenix and Tucson. ADOT plans to narrow it down to a final train route by early next year.  The commuter train system would connect Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix with the Tucson airport.

ADOT spokeswoman Laura Douglas said the project is still very early in the planning stages. The goal is to reduce congestion and commute times for people who regularly drive on Interstate 10.

 “It’s not a bullet train by far, but we’re looking at a train that could go as fast as 125 miles an hour for express service between Phoenix and Tucson," Douglas said.

Douglas said ADOT studies show that rapid population growth will continue in the area putting more cars and trucks on the already crowded interstate.

“Three years ago it took an average of 95 minutes, about an hour and a half to commute between Phoenix and Tucson, which is approximately 105 miles. However, by 2050, travel times are predicted to soar to 324 minutes," Douglas said.

The three train routes ADOT has selected would all travel alongside I-10 from Tucson to Eloy, but north of Eloy, the trains would go in different directions as they enter the Phoenix area.

One proposed route would go across the Gila River Community to Sky Harbor airport. Another would take passengers to the east valley through Gilbert, Queen Creek and Tempe.  The third route would align with a new north-south corridor ADOT is planning that would skirt around the east side of the San Tan Valley and eventually to central Phoenix.

"The plan is to eventually expand to west valley communities particularly along the U.S. 60 and also the I-10 areas," said Douglas.

She said the commuter project would be linked to the valley's light rail and bus systems where passengers could transfer. It may also take people directly to the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.  Douglas said the biggest challenge is securing funding for the train. 

“It’s probably in the area of the $5 billion to $10 billion dollar range, and that’s a rough estimate," Douglas said.

$5 billion to $10 billion dollars is a hefty price tag. ADOT could cut those costs in half by sharing tracks between Tucson and Eloy that are owned by Union Pacific Railroad, but that could be a problem according to Charles Banks, a railroad consultant with R.L. Banks and Associates in Arlington, Virginia.

“The freight railroads don’t care to host these passenger trains for a variety of reasons," Banks said.

Banks said Union Pacific allows commuter trains to share its tracks in Los Angeles, but that arrangement might not work in Arizona. 

“What they have to evaluate is, if I let these passenger trains on my track am I depriving myself of the opportunity to run another freight train in those slots that the passenger trains are occupying," Banks said.

ADOT has not identified a funding source for the train project yet.  Banks said the state would be better off using a mix of local and federal funding to build its own tracks for the commuter system. However, he said the latest Congressional reports show that stimulus funds are drying up.

"The competition for federal dollars was something like six to seven times as much as the amount of money available," Banks said.

ADOT could decide to do away with the rail proposal altogether and build more lanes on I-10. Officials said something has to be done in the next few decades, or the interstate will probably just turn into one big traffic jam.

maps The left map includes seven alternative routes that ADOT unveiled two years ago. The map on the right will be released by ADOT after a two year study. It has three proposed routes that are the finalists. (Maps courtesy of the Arizona Department of Transportation)