Mayors from 11 Arizona communities, including Tucson, Phoenix, Oro Valley and Marana, sent a letter to Arizona congressional leaders, supporting Amtrak’s proposal for a passenger rail connecting Tucson and Phoenix.
“It's about a regional approach to economic development because what's good for Tucson is good for the region,” said Romero in a media roundtable with Amtrak and city leaders on Tuesday. “It really is about offering an opportunity to all of our residents, including those that live south of Tucson in Nogales and Rio Rico, to connect even tourists that are coming in from Sonora, Mexico, which is our number one trading partner in Arizona, to Tucson.”
The passenger rail would be an alternative to driving, with a five-minute shorter travel time than the peak two-hours-and-30-minute commute from Tucson to Phoenix, said Amtrak President Stephen Gardner. The route would also link other towns, such as Marana, Coolidge and Goodyear.
The rail would offer three daily round trips between Tucson, Phoenix and Buckeye, and one daily trip from Tucson to Los Angeles. The proposed line is part of Amtrak’s Corridor Vision Plan to expand low carbon intercity passenger rail service to 160 communities across the nation over the next 15 years.
“We have a global climate crisis. In part congestions on the road and really in the air feed some of that. We have a history of some structural inequality in society but particularly in transportation as well,” said Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn. “We believe that one way to rise and address these challenges that our country confronts is through expanding intercity passenger rail service, putting in place a system that offers frequent reliable, sustainable and equitable alternatives to driving and flying.”
Flynn said the rail could address long-term congestion issues in the corridor, as Tucson commuters are estimated to spend about 90% more time in traffic than elsewhere and large city commuters may be experiencing as much as 62 hours of congestion delay, estimated to cost about $1,000 a year.
The passenger rail would require an investment of about $925 million and take about three years of construction to put the service in place, said Gardner.
Amtrak estimates the service would serve about 200,000 riders annually, producing $77.7 million a year and generate about $2.3 billion in economic activity created from one-time capital investments.
Mayor Ed Honea of Marana, who signed the letter of support, said his constituents would be able to visit their families or travel for work, like his own family has between San Diego to Los Angeles. He also noted the area around the Marana stop has multiple hotel and motel complexes for people to stay in for business.
Beyond the leisure traveler, Visit Phoenix CEO Ron Price added that connecting these cities would increase interest in the region.
“How much more attractive are we going to become to be landing the next corporate headquarters, the regional offices?” asked Price.
Amtrak would use and build on existing lines, and use their new diesel multipl-unit train, which Gardner said is a “very effective train set.” While the train is not electric, he said Amtrak is looking at different alternatives to provide the “lowest carbon service that we can.”
When asked why Amtrak considered a passenger rail versus a high-speed rail, Flynn noted the time and investment a high-speed rail would take, but would be considered in the future once there’s an existing line.
“High-speed rail from start to finish, usually is a 15-plus-year project, and it is something that I think that we look at once there's an existing corridor, and there's existing volumes,” said Flynn. “The approach here is to build out the service, build out the ridership and then explore what other future opportunities are for services.”
Amtrak hopes to secure the federal funding necessary to begin the investments to start operations, including the agreements with host railroads, like Union Pacific to develop the rights to operate. Gardner said they proposed a “bold plan for federal investment” to Congress to help cover up to all of the initial capital costs and a portion of the early operational costs. They also advocated that Congress provide additional funds to increase the operation of the trains, including the two they currently have, in their long-distance network from three times a week to daily.
Part of the proposal also includes transitioning the operating funding requirement to the state after a period of time, according to Flynn.
“The state of Arizona has an incredible opportunity to lead on this particular type of investment that other states, by the way, already do,” said Romero.