By Daniel Rasmussen, Arizona State University
It just celebrated its three-year anniversary in December, and the METRO Light Rail has become an integral part of the commute of many Tempe residents.
With its ridership growing by more than 1 million passengers annually, it is quickly becoming a symbol of a cleaner, more efficient city.
However, the light rail is not the sustainability godsend many misinterpret it to be. It was actually introduced as a transportation system that was cheaper than a car and one that could get passengers to their destinations without stress and traffic.
A decrease in congestion was one of the desired effects, but the environmental benefits were never the main concern.
Rob Melnick, executive dean of Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability, says it will take more than a few cars being off the road to make a true difference.
“Yes, when you take fewer cars off the street, you are introducing less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” he says. “But for every person not driving their car, the light rail is still using a boatload more electricity, which is generated from fossil fuels.”
Melnick says the light rail project acted as a “coming of age” for the valley, and until the project expands to reach a larger number of people, it will not be a major source of environmental efficiency.
Phoenix was built as a sprawling, auto-centric city — a rebellion from the classic European layouts of New York and Boston. While these bigger cities top “greenest cities” lists, thanks to their concentrated public transportation systems, Phoenix continues to rank in the lower tier.
“Here it is a novelty to take the train, and it will take a long time to break the habit,” says Melnick.
Project has changed some minds
The METRO Light Rail project has faced its fair share of opposition. The passage of Proposition 400 in 2004 allowed the project to continue to reach its current state.
The main concern at the time of Proposition 400 was a squeezed state budget. Since then, light rail’s positive effect on the local economy and neighborhood regeneration have become unforeseen advantages.
Apache Boulevard, a thoroughfare in north Tempe, became a haven for prostitutes, dive bars, and drug addicts in the mid-1990s. After the opening of numerous light rail stops, the area has now shaken off its rough reputation and has become a coveted housing area for students attending Arizona State University.
This effect has been echoed throughout numerous Tempe neighborhoods, with economic development along the light rail line giving the areas a new lease on life.
Onnie Shekerjian, Tempe councilwoman and chair of the Council Committee on Technology, Economic and Community Development, says she never anticipated a $4 billion economic boost for Tempe.
“I’m a Republican, and I did not vote for Proposition 400,” Shekerjian admits. “The light rail was a very expensive form of transportation, but the fact that it cleared up a blighted area and brought in immense economic development is something that made me very interested.”
Shekerjian says the Tempe City Council hopes to replicate the economic growth of the light rail with a proposed METRO Modern Streetcar line. If built, the line will circle downtown Tempe and link it with popular venues like Gammage Auditorium and Tempe Marketplace.
Naomi Ngui, a third-year student at ASU, feels upbeat about the project. “It would be great to connect all the social spots around Tempe. I use the light rail five days a week already, and this would make me want to use it more,” she says.
The city council is currently awaiting federal funding before advancing the project, but Shekerjian says the benefits are vast.
“The light rail exceeded what it set out to do. There is a value of these systems beyond just transporting people,” she says.
More green projects underway
While rail projects have had more impact economically, Tempe continues to introduce new technologies to further its environmental goals.
Green Waste, a pilot program to recycle natural waste such as tree branches, leaves, and grass, was introduced in 2010. The program converts the waste into compost, which is then used to fertilize local parks and golf courses.
The initiative saves the city $300,000 to $350,000 each year in landfill costs, and decreases the use of chemical fertilizers. It is currently only available in selected neighborhoods, but Shekerjian says the council hopes to take it citywide in the next year.
Tempe has made other steps to be more sustainable. Streetlights in downtown Tempe now incorporate induction lighting, with bulbs that last up to 20 years and save the city 35 percent in energy usage.
Shekerjian says that each measure continues Tempe’s philosophy to stay ahead of the curve.
“Tempe citizens have always been more progressive in their thinking,” she says. “We were doing sustainable long before it was fashionable.”