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ADOT: Tucson will be better connected to metro Phoenix

Transportation is vital to the success of an economy, and as the financial hub of Arizona, it is important for the Valley to stay ahead of travel demands and the strain of future growth.

There are many different options for strengthening the connection between the Valley and Tucson, and the Arizona Department of Transportation has begun several studies to determine which are the most viable.

ADOT spokesperson Laura Douglas said one of the most strongly supported ideas is for a passenger rail line linking the state’s two largest cities.

“We’re about two years into a three-year [feasibility] study,” she said. “We’re determining if there is a purpose and a need for passenger rail between Phoenix and Tucson.”

This is the first of what will be many studies, and so far the reaction has been positive, Douglas said.

“There’s a lot of public support,” Douglas said. “This is a real driver that would produce good benefits for the Arizona economy as well, and a real investment in Arizona’s transportation future.”

During the study, ADOT has eliminated four proposed routes for a passenger rail to Tucson, narrowing the total to three options.

“Those three will advance for further study, and then what we hope to have by the end of the year is one final preferred alternative that will move forward for further study,” said Douglas.

Douglas said ADOT expects finalize a single proposed route for a rail line and complete preliminary environmental impact information by spring of 2014.

Currently ADOT is continuing its effort to decide on which route the passenger rail would take and is left with three color-coded options: Green, orange and yellow lines.

The green line would begin in Phoenix and would be the most direct route to Tucson.

“(It’s) basically a straight-shot from Phoenix to Tucson along I-10,” Douglas said.

The orange and yellow lines cut routes through east Valley before turning south.

All three lines will have one common crossing area, however — by the time they reach the city of Eloy, located about 55 miles north of Tucson and just south of the Interstate 8 and Interstate 10 conjunction, Douglas said.

“They would all run along I-10 in that same route from Eloy to Tucson,” Douglas said. “So it’s just a matter of where they start out in the Phoenix area.”

A passenger rail line from the Valley to Tucson is the very early stages at this point, but Douglas said they are beginning to determine what kind of rail line it would be.

She called it a “blended system.”

“So those that travel from Phoenix to Tucson and want to just get to those two metropolitan areas quickly, it would be an express service,” Douglas said. “For those that want to use it on more of a daily basis for commuting or things like that…they could use it as more of a commuter service.”

Douglas said specific designs of the trains are still yet to come, but that the line will not have a bullet train service.

“It’s going to high-speed, and when we talk about high-speed, that’s more along the line of 125 miles per hour, estimated,” said Douglas. “It wouldn’t be a bullet train.”

The cost of creating a rail line and operating it is also only a rough estimate at this time.

“A rough estimate for construction and operations is around $5-to-10 billion,” Douglas said. “As we go further along in the study and as we get closer to construction, obviously those numbers could change.”

Douglas said the current study is not yet looking into specific economic details of a rail line such as funding options, operation cost and potential revenue from the service.

“What we really need to do as we end this particular study and put our recommendations out there for policy makers and the public is how do we fund it?” Douglas asked. “That is a conversation we need to start as a statewide community.”

As Arizona looks to the future of transportation, other options surface besides just passenger rail lines. Douglas said another future option to link the Valley and Tucson is the possibility of a new interstate.

The proposed Interstate 11 would be a major thoroughfare that could extend north and south from Mexico to Canada, Douglas said. The focus for the interstate is currently centered on creating a strong link between Phoenix and Las Vegas, Nev., and has received support from Governor Jan Brewer, said Douglas.

However, Douglas said that the proposed highway is still in feasibility studies, and determining whether the road will run to Tucson remains to be seen.

“There’s a lot of support; there’s a lot of interest behind I-11, and we certainly appreciate everybody’s interest in all of that, but again no lines on a map just yet,” Douglas said.

Nearly the only proposal that has been eliminated at this point has been the possibility of bus routes between Phoenix and Tucson.

“The bus alternative did not make it very far [in our studies] because people did not support that particular mode of transportation,” said Douglas. “Much like driving, going by bus from Phoenix to Tucson doesn’t get that much quicker.”

Doulas said other ideas include widening the current Valley to Tucson freeway: Interstate 10. She said there is also always a no-build option still on the table if there is not enough public support going forward.

She said it will be important for the future of Arizona to make sure travel alternatives and needs are met and planned out in advance.

“If we do nothing to that I-10 corridor, whether it’s installing a rail system or expanding I-10 by several lanes…if we do nothing, we’re going to see a lot of congestion. People sitting in traffic and travel times that we thought were once not too bad will grow exponentially,” she said.