Local commuters who rely on the 540 Express Bus to get to and from work can breathe a sigh of relief, at least temporarily, after Valley Metro officials voted unanimously Thursday to spare the route from elimination until more research can be done.
The decision was made after Shana Ellis, Tempe councilwoman and member of the Valley Metro board of directors asked the board to delay any service changes to the 540, as well as routes 520 and 521, until other options could be considered.
“I would like some more time for our staff with our citizens and our commission to come up with a compromise,” said Ellis. “We just feel it’s a little drastic right now to suddenly make this change without looking at all of it further.”
At one point Ellis expressed support for the handful of Phoenix and Tempe residents who were gathered at the meeting to protest the elimination of route 540.
“I have ridden the Express route down to these metro meetings, even before all this came up,” Ellis said. “I’m with you guys and it’s always packed.”
The 540 is the only Express bus route that loops through Ahwatukee Foothills and connects riders to downtown Phoenix. Valley Metro officials are considering replacing the route with an alternate one that would begin at a park-and-ride at Tempe Sports Complex, located at Hardy Drive and Warner Road. It would then enter the freeway at Elliot Road and head downtown.
According to Susan Tierney, spokeswoman for Valley Metro, the routes being looked at for possible cuts were chosen because they weren’t being very productive with taxpayer dollars. Tierney said Valley Metro is trying to focus limited revenue on programs that have proven to be efficient, like the Rapid bus, which runs from park-and-ride locations.
“This model, which is basically the RAPID service, has proven to be very productive for riders and for the overall system,” Tierney said. “The riders like that system because it is instant. Once they get on the bus they basically head straight downtown. We’re able to pick up more riders at one location and behave more like a true Express bus.”
Ahwatukee Foothills resident Michael Chilton said he lives within walking distance of the 540 and eliminating the route would mean buying a second car to get to the park-and-ride. He said he would most likely just drive to work instead.
“I would be one of those people at 6:30 a.m. driving all the way to downtown,” Chilton said. “I would rather take 20 minutes longer to get downtown and sleep or work on my laptop.”
Gayle Platt, another Ahwatukee resident, told Valley Metro officials that she depends on the 540 to stay off the roads because she has a neurological disorder that prevents her from safely operating a vehicle.
“If I were to drive, that would be a disaster, but I would do it,” Platt said. “If you want to see a fun ride, you should be behind me sometime going down the freeway. It’s scary.”
Several people applauded once it was clear that the route would be saved, at least for a little while longer.
Ahwatukee Foothills resident Susan Szelinger has ridden the 540 for more than 10 years and said it played a big part in her decision to change jobs from Ahwatukee to downtown Phoenix. She said she questioned whether or not riders’ concerns were being taken seriously in the past and was happy with Thursday’s decision.
“I truly appreciate the board and especially Councilwoman Ellis and Mayor Stanton listening to our comments,” Szelinger said. “I do hope that in the future there can be meetings and talks where the communication is a two-way street.”
Ellis said transportation officials will spend the next few weeks going over alternative “cost-neutral” solutions and will come up with recommendations before the proposed service changes go into effect on July 23. The 540 route will remain in service in the meantime.
For more information on all of the proposed bus service changes, visit http://www.phoenix.gov/publictransit/july2012.html.
• Michael Mashburn is interning this semester for the Ahwatukee Foothills News. He is a junior at Arizona State University.