Metro Phoenix’s future light rail linked to region’s past

Posted By Mike Padgett

Aug. 12, 2008

Tom Crosser studies the aging black-and-white photographs of his father, Thomas Crosser. They were taken in Phoenix in February 1948, about three generations ago, when the city was at the brink of major growth after the end of World War II.

One of the photos shows Crosser’s father standing between two other men. They drove Phoenix streetcars, often called trolleys. Crosser’s father has his hands on his buddies’ shoulders. They are wearing their city work uniforms, with their dark wide ties and their hats with shiny black visors.

They also are wearing long faces. On streetcar No. 508 behind them is a large banner that reads, “Our Last Trip.” It was the day Phoenix shut down its streetcars and began replacing them with buses. It was like the funeral of a loyal friend.

That photo and many others are in author Lawrence J. Fleming’s history of the Phoenix streetcar system, “Ride a Smile and Smile a While.”

In his private collection, Crosser has another photo. It shows him when he was 2 years old, in the arms of his father standing in front of the streetcar with the banner.

There had been 18 streetcars, but 12 were destroyed in a maintenance building fire a few months earlier. Arson was suspected, but “the truth will probably never be known,” according to Fleming’s book.

After the electric trolley system was shut down, Crosser’s father went on to drive city buses. His usual run was north on 15th Avenue to Indian School Road. Crosser sometimes rode with his father.

“That was the edge of the world at the time,” Crosser says today.

Growth patterns changing

Much has changed in Phoenix since Crosser, now 62, was a boy riding the bus with his father in the 1950s. Many American GIs returning from World War II moved to Phoenix, accelerating the region’s growth. By the mid-1950s, gasoline was about 30 cents a gallon. The average new American car cost between $2,000 and $3,000. Phoenix’s population was about 100,000, and refrigerated air conditioning was a new invention.

Today, his father’s stories about the electric streetcar system flash through Crosser’s mind as he watches crews put the final touches on the new $1.4 billion light rail system. The new steel rails and overhead electrical wires stretch 20 miles from northwest Phoenix to Tempe and Mesa.

View on the light rail line on Central Avenue at Encanto Boulevard. Photo by Mike Padgett.

The opening date for the new light rail system, called Metro, is in late December. It currently is about 92 percent complete. Future extensions of the light rail could add nearly 37 more miles by 2025.

Crosser says those additional lines are critical because they will provide more passengers for the light rail system’s main line.

“It just needs to get to where the people are,” he says.

Norman Shelton, 87, another former Phoenix streetcar operator, agrees. He says “feeder lines” extending into heavily populated areas will increase ridership.

Valley Metro officials say the locations of the light rail system’s proposed extensions depend on the recommendations of ongoing studies. Details of those studies and maps showing the proposed routes are on Valley Metro’s Web site,

One Valley resident who has seen light rail struggles is public relations wizard Len Gutman, owner of Open Door Communications. He sees himself as “a fan of the technology,” but he remembers the meager beginnings of light rail in San Jose, Calif., in the late 1980s.

He lived in San Jose during construction and the early years of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. Its first year of operations was 1988, when its average weekday ridership was 1,101 riders. By 1991, the VTA’s weekday ridership had increased to more than 12,500. And by 2007, ridership had reached more than 30,000.

Gutman also remembers that it was several years before businesses saw the value of relocating along the VTA route.

Research shows that much has changed since the late 1980s. Light rail has become more prevalent in the West. Businesses have discovered that light rail systems, because they are permanent and commuters are on foot, generate a dependable amount of weekday pedestrian traffic.

And most recently, according to urban analysts in metro Phoenix, the rising costs of fuel are making local commuters rethink their love affairs with their homes in the suburbs.

American car culture changing

Today, with rising fuel prices forcing a re-evaluation of the financial impact of commuting, Valley Metro Chief Executive Rick Simonetta is optimistic that the daily ridership on light rail across Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa will be significant.

He adds that no one could have predicted the impact the rising costs of fuel would have on light rail in Phoenix when construction started in 2004. At that time, the Arizona economy was in the fast lane, new and resale homes were selling quickly, and motorists were furious about gasoline hitting $2 a gallon.

Today, only four years later, fuel prices soared past $4 a gallon (although they have slipped in recent weeks) and the Valley’s residential real estate industry is struggling. Home prices are down. Wall Street is in turmoil. Predatory lenders handed out loans to unqualified borrowers. Investors qualified for multiple mortgages by masquerading as homeowners.

As a result, a few banks have failed. More failures are predicted. And some homeowners, especially the buyers who exaggerated their personal financial data on mortgage applications, are facing foreclosure. Many owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. Thieves are stealing appliances, cabinets and other items from vacant new homes the owners cannot sell or pay for.

The bottom line today in Arizona, as elsewhere, is grim. Unemployment is up. Higher fuel costs are pushing up the prices of everything else, including, food, clothing, construction materials, appliances, furniture, and more.

These recent shifts in local economics are increasing public interest in the region’s bus and light rail systems as the newest chapter in Arizona transportation is about to start.

Growth fueling transit popularity

Today, the criticism of light rail that echoed for years across the West is fading. Analysts say it’s largely because of rising fuel prices and the growing frustration with longer commute times.

These shifting urban dynamics in metro Phoenix are important to Simonetta. He has been in mass transit for 37 years. Before he came to Phoenix, he worked for public transit systems in Harrisburg, Pa.; Denver; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Columbus, Ohio; and Atlanta.

Simonetta’s office is in downtown Phoenix. He’s in the building across the street from 44 Monroe, the new 32-story residential tower that’s within weeks of receiving its first resident.

He says the new residential high rise buildings and several other major public and private developments under construction downtown, including light rail, are influencing the direction of growth in central and downtown Phoenix.

“It (downtown Phoenix) has been positioned and postured for some great things to happen,” he says. “I don’t know that it’s light rail alone – it’s probably not – but light rail is certainly a significant part of that catalyst that’s making things happen.”

Aug 12th, 2008

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