Stress-free road trip without a steering wheel

Posted By Mike Padgett

Oct. 9, 2008

What are you doing Friday about 9 a.m., the caller asks.

It was an invitation to a road trip without a steering wheel. The caller was Kris Baxter, marketing specialist in the City of Tempe’s Community Development Department.

“How’d you like to ride the light rail?” she asks.

Sure, I’ll be there. Thanks. The new electric mass transit system, called Metro, is on schedule to begin operations the last week in December. Baxter, representing light rail officials, was offering several media types a ride from the light rail station near Sun Devil Stadium to the Mesa stop, which is the east end of the line. Workers are nearly finished with the new 20-mile light rail system that stretches from west Mesa through Tempe and central Phoenix.

The light rail ride was smooth and short, maybe 20 minutes each way. Another guest on the test ride rode his bicycle to the Tempe station. He hung his bike on a hook inside one of the light rail cars. I could do that, too, if I still had my Raleigh.

Much of our light rail ride from the stadium in Tempe to west Mesa was on Apache Boulevard, where I lost count of the dusty vacant lots and the ragged businesses ready for renewal.

I imagined those tired properties rejuvenated to attract business from commuters on the light rail, especially around the light rail stations. And if city planners in Tempe, Mesa and Phoenix are following the achievements of planners in other states where light rail is running, redevelopment sparked by mass transit is very likely.

 I remembered the news stories I wrote over the years about how light rail in other cities, in many cases, was good for the local economy. Today, that impact could be greater in metro Phoenix because of one factor that did not exist anywhere until recently – soaring fuel prices. Commuters and companies dependent on some form of transportation are paying much higher fuel costs than they did only three years ago.

Since it’s unlikely that fuel prices will ever go down significantly, light rail in metro Phoenix may enjoy more popularity than that experienced by other new light rail systems.

At the same time, those rising fuel prices are expected to make commuters look for housing closer to work. Or find work closer to home. That could entice commercial developers, homebuilders and employers to add job centers closer to housing developments, or vice versa.

All of which could encourage retailers, homebuilders and employers to join forces and offer mixed-use developments.

Back at the Tempe light rail station, as we stepped out of the cars, I thought about my personal transportation and how it never included mass transit.

I received the keys to my first car many miles ago. But this summer, while traveling for four weeks in Ireland, I surrendered my independence to mass transit. We used the national bus system in Ireland, and it was a positive experience. The Irish depend heavily on mass transit, whether it’s the buses, the trains, or the new light rail systems in Dublin. In Ireland, vehicle ownership is expensive, and many streets and roads are narrow and congested.

In our case, from our comfortable bus seats, we enjoyed spotting Ireland’s ancient castles, cottages in the mist, sheep and the wild goats on the hillsides, and inspirational country homes.

The major drawback of any mass transit system is that it operates on a fixed route and rigid schedule. However, still using Ireland as an example, I didn’t have to watch out for other drivers. I could have conversations with interesting strangers. I could read the newspaper and ignore the rain. I could close my eyes and listen to my favorite music on my iPod. Or I could enjoy the scenery of the green fields crisscrossed by stone fences that stretch to forever. In metro Phoenix, I could read or use a laptop while riding Metro.

Other advantages offered by mass transit include avoiding the costs of vehicle ownership, such as the price of the car and the costs of fuel, maintenance, insurance and interest on a car loan. Imagine how many of your children you could send to college (or how many international vacations you could afford) if you didn’t own a vehicle or two, especially at today’s fuel prices.

After our short round trip between Tempe and Mesa, we received a tour of the new Tempe Transportation Center from Bonnie Richardson, an architect and principal planner in the Tempe Transportation Division. The transportation center is a 40,000-square-foot building that is nearly complete. Next to the security offices is a large room with racks for 120 bicycles for commuters, as well as showers, a changing room and lockers.

The building near Fifth Street and College Avenue offers covered outdoor space for residents and light rail customers to escape the hot sun. On the second floor, over the outdoor space, is a community meeting room.

The new building will offer leasable office space as well as 3,500 square feet for ground floor retailers, such as a place where commuters can pick up their coffee, newspapers and magazines. Visit www.tempe.gov/destinationtempe for more information.

Metro spokeswoman Hillary Foose said rides on Metro will be free during the system’s first two days of operation Dec. 27 and 28. Mesa, Phoenix and Tempe are planning special events that weekend after Christmas to introduce light rail to their residents. Visit www.metrolightrail.org for more information.

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Oct 9th, 2008

One Comment to 'Stress-free road trip without a steering wheel'

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  1. Kris Baxter said,

    Great story, Mike. Seems like you had a great time. Thanks for joining us!

    Light rail has already sprouted many new developments on Apache Boulevard, some under construction and some not quite visible. There’s an entire list at http://www.tempe.gov/maps — just click on Apache Boulevard development. When you go past McClintock and Apache, there is a huge concrete structure that will be a Park and Ride surrounded by apartments called Equinox. Check it out!

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