On Friday, for the first time, Arizona's State Transportation Board approved a state rail plan which includes connecting the major metropolitan areas of Phoenix and Tucson by passenger rail. In a state known for its reliance on single-occupant vehicles and its lack of good public transportation, this is a crucial step forward for providing Arizonans with better transportation options.
Three-quarters of the state's population lives in the Phoenix or Tucson areas, but there are no public transportation options between the two cities, leaving travelers to drive - on a clogged, often dangerous freeway - or rely on expensive van service between the cities. Each day, an average of 11,400 vehicles make the trip between Phoenix and Tucson; by 2050, that number is projected to more than triple.
The lack of public transportation has been compounded by the fact that Arizona has been one of the fastest growing states in the nation in recent years. With our increased population has come increased congestion, increased air pollution caused by cars, and increased threats to public health and our environment.
Bringing good public transportation options - such as passenger rail - to Arizona will improve our quality of life, reduce traffic congestion on our roads, spur economic development, bring jobs to our state, and reduce air pollution. It also will give those without the ability to drive (such as the elderly and people with disabilities) and those who cannot afford a car more transportation options.
With passenger rail, business travelers can easily attend meetings in other cities without having to worry about the work time lost while driving. Residents of Tucson can use the train to come to Phoenix for sporting events without having to worry about driving the I-10 late at night or having to find a hotel room in Phoenix. College students can use the train to travel between Phoenix and Tucson to attend the University of Arizona and Arizona State University and their family members could use it passenger rail to visit them while they are at college.
Passenger rail isn't just a better way to get around. It's also good for our economy. An Arizona PIRG Education Fund report released last fall noted the economic development potential that passenger rail brings. At a time when Arizona faces 9.6% unemployment, passenger rail would provide a much-needed boost to our manufacturing sector. Hundreds of short-term and long-term jobs will be created by building and operating passenger rail in Arizona.
The Arizona Department of Transportation now moves forward with a study to determine the best corridor for the Phoenix-Tucson intercity rail and will work to get environmental clearance from the federal government, which will enable Arizona to apply for federal dollars.
There's still a lot of studying, planning, and financing ahead before Arizona has passenger rail. But this critical first step is something worth celebrating.
Serena Unrein is the Public Interest Advocate for the Arizona Public Interest Research Group (Arizona PIRG). Arizona PIRG is a statewide public interest advocacy organization. More information can be found at www.arizonapirg.org.