Scottsdale officials eye new spectrum of mass-transit circulation

A view of Scottsdale Road where city officials say better frequency will improve mass-transit ridership within city limits. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

A view of Scottsdale Road where city officials say better frequency will improve mass-transit ridership within city limits. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

As the city of Scottsdale begins to update its 2006 transportation master plan, an underlying theme appears to be emerging: What sort of mass-transit options should city leaders be considering?

The Scottsdale Transportation Commission is expected to begin deliberations this week on what sort of mass-transit options ought to be pursued. Initial discussion will focus on mass-transit that serves the entire city, as well as mass transit specifically along Scottsdale Road from Chaparral to a Valley Metro Light Rail connection in Tempe.

The advisory commission provides recommendations to Scottsdale City Council on transportation issues in the context of existing city ordinances and regulations, the policies and goals established in the General Plan, city code states.

Despite Scottsdale’s popularity as a destination venue, officials say they’re not specifically looking at bringing the Light Rail into Scottsdale. The focus, at least in the beginning, is to examine more offerings at a greater frequency.

“At present time there is no discussion of Light Rail, modern street car or bus-rapid transit,” said Scottsdale Transportation Director Paul Basha in a May 4 phone interview. “There is no determined need for high-capacity transit — it was just a concept that was formulated about 20 years ago.”

But that concept is something Scottsdale Councilwoman Virginia Korte would like to see further explored and explained to the general public while Councilman Guy Phillips says the issue is a moot point for the typical Scottsdale resident.

Guy Phillips

Guy Phillips

Councilman Phillips believes added mass-transit options in Scottsdale  are unnecessary — an opinion, he says, is supported by the lack of people using existing options.

“We have that No. 72 (bus) up and down Scottsdale (Road) and nobody rides it. You don’t put out a bunch of buses and expect people to ride them. We have proved that point is not true. I am not trying to be an evil person, but if there is a need let’s address it.”

Councilman Phillips says the idea Scottsdale needs a mass-transit system is laughable.
“It is just kind of silly. We are going to step up our routes because we are not going to do Light Rail? We have to do more buses?

“We should look around to other affluent communities and see what their transit systems looks like. I just don’t see affluent people getting out of their Mercedes to get on a bus. I don’t see why we need to support or provide that.”

Scottsdale City Council voted last month to end the city’s free Day Tripper trolley service due to a lack of ridership, Councilman Phillips points out.

“I don’t see (much sense in) creating a system that costs millions of dollars that nobody rides. We couldn’t get people to ride the trolley on Scottsdale Road and it was free,” he said of the Day Tripper trolley. “We just proved that the tourism trolley doesn’t work. I view Scottsdale as a place of refuge. A place for vacations where people don’t want to come to an inner-city area and want to use the public transit system.”

Councilwoman Korte has a different opinion on public transit in Scottsdale.

“I believe we have different needs,” she said in a May 5 phone interview of the local politics surrounding the city council’s 2006 decision to strike all pursuits of any fixed-rail transit options by the city. “Now 10 years later we are thinking about things differently.”

Virginia Korte

Virginia Korte

Councilwoman Korte believes the community at least needs to have a robust conversation about public transit.

Public transportation may not be important to residents or visitors, but Ms. Korte thinks it would be valuable to those who work in Scottsdale — but live somewhere else.

“We import 75 to 80 percent of our workforce every day into Scottdale,” she explained. “Everyone can’t afford to live here. We need to provide diversified ways to get into the community. It has everything to do with workforce development.”

Rising home prices and stricter regulations on the use of federal grant funds has forced the return of nearly $1 million originally meant to create affordable housing options in Scottsdale, which as Councilwoman Korte illustrates, is a scarce commodity in Scottsdale.

Scottsdale received $1.2 million of federal grant money in 2011, but because the city has been unable to spend these funds in accordance with grant regulations, $855,000 must be returned or else be in violation of the HOME Investment Partnership Program.

Councilwoman Korte says she worries Scottsdale is becoming too much of an island onto itself.

“There is public transit all around us,” she said of Valley Metro Light Rail system and other mass-transit services in the neighboring cities of Phoenix and Tempe. “If we are looking to support our tourism industry, we need to provide new ways for people to get around. The conversation has to get beyond, ‘I don’t want it down Scottsdale Road.’”

Above all else, Councilwoman Korte says she wants to have a community conversation on mass-transit options within city limits.

“I am an advocate for fixed rail connecting to the other public transit systems,” she said. “But we have to have that connectivity to the rest of the Valley.”

It’s time for the community of Scottsdale to figure out what its transportation needs are, Councilwoman Korte contends.

“I believe this community can come together as they do on community topics,” she said. “It is a matter of education — removing the rhetoric and getting to the facts.”

The regional spectrum of transit

The business of a metropolitan public transit system is one grounded in a regional thought process.

“Valley Metro is a regional transit system, so we really don’t concentrate our efforts on a specific area,” said Valley Metro spokeswoman Anne Glaser in a May 5 phone interview.

At the helm of that effort is the Maricopa Association of Governments.

Formed in 1967, MAG is a coalition of local government officials focused on providing long-range planning for transportation, air quality, water quality and human services, according to www.mag.maricopa.gov.

MAG is the designated metropolitan planning organization for transportation planning in the Maricopa County region.

In 2004, Maricopa County residents approved an extension of the half-cent sales tax, originally enacted in 1985. The tax earmarks over one-third of tax revenues, or $5.8 billion, for transit.

“Valley Metro and the Maricopa Association of Governments lead several transit-related committees composed of participants from the various cities throughout the Valley, including Scottsdale, that provide transit service to their communities,” explained Holly Walter, a spokeswoman for the city.

“Together, the participating cities work corroboratively to share transit funding and make decisions that improve transit service throughout the Valley.”

Scottsdale’s transit staff, she says, serves as liaisons between neighboring communities to address emerging mass-transit needs.

“Members of our transit staff represent Scottsdale on committees and work with the other community liaisons to address our city’s needs. Oftentimes, one community’s issue is shared by other communities,” she said.  “By working together, common issues are often resolved for several communities. Transit routes cross city boundaries, so any issue with service that Scottsdale has likely impacts Tempe and Phoenix, if not other communities as well.”

Scottsdale Convention & Visitor’s Bureau Vice President of Community & Government Affairs Rachel Pearson says transit needs definitely impact the tourism marketplace.

The better the amenities, she says, the better the draw for certain tourism demographics.

“A wide range of transportation choices are becoming increasingly important to visitors, especially millennial travelers,” she said in a May 6 written response to e-mailed questions.

“Scottsdale has an opportunity to improve local transportation options to appeal to both residents and visitors. Increasing transit options would offer visitors a more carefree alternative to navigating what may be a new city for them, allowing them to have a more enjoyable experience and increasing the likelihood for repeat visitation.”

Valley Metro operates a bus line connecting Phoenix and Scottsdale through the McDowell Corridor. (File Photo)

Valley Metro operates a bus connecting Phoenix and Scottsdale through the McDowell Corridor. (File Photo)

Perception vs. reality

Valley Metro operates a host of high ridership bus lines within city limits, Scottdale city officials say. But in contrast they agree there is, and likely will always be, a stigma attached to riding a bus.

“Something that we have discovered is that people in the U.S. and Canada in their 20s and 30s like to use Light Rail and are adverse to riding the bus,” Mr. Basha said. “Nobody in the field knows why.”

Mr. Basha says appearance, frequency and stop rates matter to those who ride mass-transit options.

“Another reason Light Rail is popular is its infrequent stops. If you have to stop literally every 660 feet that can become very annoying for the rider,” he said. “We will be exploring that aspect to see if we can operate buses in the same way (as Light Rail).”

Valley Metro and the city of Scottsdale operate several bus lines navigating riders in and through Scottsdale into the municipalities of Phoenix and Tempe. Scottsdale service is provided by three transit intergovernmental agreements:

  • Valley Metro provides service on Routes 72, 81 and Express Route 214. Scottsdale pays a per-mile fee. Valley Metro owns and maintains the buses. Scottsdale owns and maintains the bus stops and shelters.
  • City of Phoenix provides service on Routes 17, 29, 41, 56, 154, and 171. Scottsdale pays a per-mile fee. City of Phoenix owns and maintains the buses. Scottsdale owns and maintains the bus stops and shelters.
  • City of Scottsdale provides service on three Trolley routes: Downtown, Miller Road, and Neighborhood. Scottsdale owns the vehicles, and contracts with Dunn Transit to operate and maintain the vehicles. The city contract with Dunn Transit is based on a per-hour fee.

Mr. Basha says much of the update to the transportation master plan is one to reduce the sheer size of the document, which is more than 400 pages, and develop concrete goals and measurements for high-capacity transit needs within city limits.

“It is simply a decision document we hope to be three dozen pages,” he said. “By way of transit options, what we are presenting to the commission are buses and trolleys. We are not discussing light rail; we’re not even bringing it up.”

Mr. Basha says the commission will examine a host of new routes, particularly circular options around the Scottsdale Airpark area and routes that offer greater connectivity citywide for destinations such as Scottsdale Fashion Square.

In addition, Mr. Basha says increased frequency on established routes is the name of the game for Scottsdale.

“We are trying to compromise there by having shorter trolley routes at higher frequencies so people can connect easier,” he said.  “If the transfers are quick then they are not a problem. We will be increasing frequency on Scottsdale Road next April.”

Even if the city were to pursue the light rail, Mr. Basha says it’s not as easy as simply gaining council approval. He says the municipality has many steps to take before ridership could support or demand a fixed-rail option.

“In order for us to have a light rail system in Scottsdale, we would need to first dramatically improve our bus system,” he said.

Scottsdale City Council could see a final draft of the updated transportation master plan by the end of the year, Mr. Basha says.

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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