youUncle Sam pays nearly a million dollars to help Mesa lay the groundwork for a west side streetcar line.
Years will pass before Mesa residents hear the clang-clang-clang of a transportation system the city first envisioned more than a century ago. But the planning has to start somewhere, and a $920,000 grant from the Federal Transit Administration will fuel the next step in the process.
Jodi Sorrell, Mesa’s director of transit services, said the grant is designed to help the city develop “transit support policies” that will help it compete when it comes time to go. fish for the big bucks – the millions of federal money likely to be needed to build the streetcar line.
“It puts us all in a better place to be competitive. I think that’s the key message,” Sorrell told the Tribune.
The general idea is to extend Tempe’s downtown streetcar system — which is slated to begin operating this spring — eastward along Rio Salado Parkway to the Riverview shopping district at Dobson Road.
From there, the line would run south through the Asian Mesa District to Banner Desert Medical Center and Mesa Community College. Then it would go east along Southern Avenue to Country Club Drive before turning north to reach Main Street.
It would cover seven miles, connecting many entertainment and employment centers that Mesa sees as key players in a more vibrant future for its aging West Side.
The route was favored in a feasibility study conducted by Valley Metro in 2020. Valley Metro operates the region’s bus and light rail systems and will also operate the Tempe streetcar system.
Most of the streetcar line would be in City Council District 3, represented by Councilman Francisco Heredia.
He sees the project as both a transportation system and a catalyst for economic development, much like it happened with the Valley’s 13-year-old light rail system.
“What we’ve seen on light rail over 30 miles now is that we’ve not only added mobility for our residents across the valley, but it’s also been economic play for all of our cities,” Heredia said. “We’ve seen billions of dollars of investment in housing, in business, in other jobs that have come into this corridor.”
He cited recent developments in downtown Mesa, which went nearly 30 years without new residential construction before transit-oriented development began about a decade ago.
Heredia said that by the time the streetcars start rolling, the Fiesta neighborhood could already be thriving again with some sort of new iteration for the long-dead Fiesta mall.
A deal is in the works to put the mall under sole ownership, Heredia said. This could lead to mixed-use redevelopment including housing, employment and entertainment.
“It will definitely become a center of activity for this region,” he said.
Sorrell said the Mesa streetcar proposal grew out of discussions eight years ago between officials from Mesa, Tempe, Valley Metro and Arizona State University.
The 2020 feasibility study suggested the route is viable, she said. But there is still a lot more to do.
In fiscal year 2023, which begins July 1, Mesa and Tempe hope to begin developing a specific route proposal — what bureaucrats call a “locally preferred alternative.”
This process was ongoing when Mesa was trying to figure out where to place the light rail line as it passed through downtown, even though the general route had been determined. The city council had to decide whether to run the tracks along Main Street, or either run one block north or south on First Street or First Avenue.
Sorrell expects a “robust public participation process” to begin in early 2023.
Beyond that, the timing is fuzzy. Sorrell pointed out that it took more than eight years to plan and build Mesa’s first light rail extension, even though the funding was already in place.
Simply completing the milestones covered by the recent $920,000 grant will likely take two and a half years, she said. “These are long-term projects.”
Projecting a final cost for the project is impossible at this stage, Sorrell said.
The Tempe streetcar line that will open this spring has cost around $200 million. Of that amount, $75 million came from federal grants, $112 million from a regional transportation sales tax, and $13 million from a public-private partnership involving Tempe, ASU, and private entities along the tram line.
Last summer, the federal government injected an additional $17.5 million to improve the safety and efficiency of the Tempe Line.
Tempe’s streetcar system covers three miles with six vehicles. It begins at Apache Boulevard and Dorsey Lane, runs west to Mill Avenue, then north to Rio Salado Parkway, ending near Sun Devil Stadium.
Mesa has already thought of this sort of thing.
As the 1800s melted, the booming small town of Phoenix was benefiting from the use of electric streetcars; in 1922 his system encompassed 28 miles of track.
Mesa thought it would be cool to hook up to the Phoenix line, or at least have its own local system. In 1909, the city council asked voters to approve a proposal by AJ Chandler—founder of the city that bears his name and a key player in the early development of downtown Mesa—to build streetcar tracks on Main Streets , Center and McDonalds.
Voters said OK, but by then the Model T was rolling off Henry Ford’s assembly line in Michigan. The Mesa streetcar line was never built.
The arrival of the automobile condemned the tram lines across the country.
The one in Phoenix lasted until February 17, 1948, when a ceremonial “last ride” marked the end of an era of transportation. According to an article in the Arizona Republic, Phoenix Mayor Ray Busey said, “There is a twinge of heartache as the streetcars disappear.
Today, perhaps in a nod to nostalgia but also to new visions of urban planning, they are coming back. And that old mayor’s “grasp in the heart” could be replaced by a zing, zing, zing of the heartstrings as the sleek, shiny 21st century carts roll by.