light rail

Crews are homing in on the completion of the light rail line’s extension to Gilbert Road, which is expected to open in May and which Valley Metro officials hope will bump up ridership after the line’s first rider decline last year since it opened in 2008.

For the first time since it started rolling 10 years ago, Metro Light Rail ridership dropped – and it may involve what officials say is a misperception that the train stations are crime-prone.

Ridership along the entire light rail line dropped in 2018 to 15.8 million rides from 16.5 million the previous year.

In that same time frame, the number of security incidents dropped 30 percent – from 1,587 in 2017 to 1,088 in 2018.

Nevertheless, riders apparently “feel like they don’t see enough officers,’’ Hillary Foose, Valley Metro’s director of communications and special initiatives, told a Phoenix City Council committee recently.

The revelations come at a time when city Councilman Sal DiCiccio is leading the charge for Phoenix to discontinue any light rail extension in Phoenix.

Foose said complaints from the public indicate that some people don’t feel safe or comfortable using the system and that consequently, “We are for the first time seeing a ridership decline on our system.’’

Foose noted that two of the three stations with the most security incidents in 2018 were in Mesa – with the stop at Alma School Road ranking second and the one at Country Club Drive placing third. The Phoenix station at 19th Avenue and Dunlap Avenue generated the most incidents.

That was a departure from 2017, when the three stations with the most security incidents were all along 19th Avenue – at Dunlap and Glendale avenues and Camelback Road.

But, Foose asserted, “Valley Metro is a safe system. Our incidents are very low.”

Mesa Police support that assertion.

Commander Ruben Quesada, of the Mesa police central patrol district, said a bicycle unit keeps a close watch over the light rail stops.

He said there are trouble-spots, including a convenience store at Alma School and Main where transients tend to loiter, but that most crimes are relatively minor and no one should be afraid to ride the light rail.

“Always be vigilant. You are in a public area,’’ Quesada said. “Just be alert.’’

About 90 percent of the incidents involve trespassing – either people on the platforms without reason or riders without a ticket – according to Valley Metro spokeswoman Susan Tierney.

“The top issue we have is trespassing, basically being on a train or a platform without a valid ticket,’’ she said.

Offenders are often transients looking for a place to sleep or for an air-conditioned ride on a hot summer day. The next biggest security issue, open container violations, is another transient-related issue.

“I would say safety and security is a great concern of ours. Every fare-paying passenger deserves a safe ride,’’ Tierney said. “We have very few major crimes.’’

She said Valley Metro’s Respect the Ride program sets standards of etiquette for riding the light rail and is aimed at eliminating rude and disruptive behavior, such as vaping on the trains.

Security officers not only ask riders for their ticket, but also for their destination, hoping to discourage transients from riding the trains all day to avoid the elements outside.

The Alert VM app allows riders to report disruptive behavior discreetly to dispatchers and to even submit pictures.  

Metro Light Rail plans to introduce a third layer of security, beyond paid security officers supplemented by sworn police officers, Foose said.

The ambassadors’ program would station people later this year on platforms to serve as customer service representatives, taking complaints, giving directions and spotting infractions, such as sleeping, vaping or smoking.

She said other transit systems in big cities, including St. Louis, are finding a mixture of cops, security guards and ambassadors enhances security.

Misperceptions about crime aren’t the only theories behind the ridership decline. Officials also cite a lack of special events, a strong economy and relatively low gas prices as contributing factors.

But Valley Metro officials think the scheduled opening of the long-awaited two-mile extension to Gilbert Road in May will give ridership a needed boost.

“I think Mesa will see a bump in ridership when they open the Gilbert Road station in May,’’ said Tierney.

Jodi Sorrell, Mesa’s transit services director, said there was a surge of more than 800,000 additional riders when Mesa went from a little less than a mile of light rail to nearly four miles when it was extended to Mesa Drive.

“I’m hoping that it will have a positive impact. There are a lot of riders looking forward to using the Gilbert Road park and ride,’’ Sorrell said.

Ridership along Mesa’s nearly six miles of light rail has been relatively flat – about 2.27 million in fiscal year 2017 and 2.25 million in the fiscal year that ended last June 30.

When the new segment opens, Mesa will have nearly six miles of light rail, or about 20 percent of Valley Metro’s light rail line.

The Mesa City Council voted this week to spend $8.1 million as its share of yearly light rail maintenance and operating costs – a prodigious sum that still pales in comparison with Tempe’s $11.3-million assessment and Phoenix’s $32.1-million price tag.

But Sorrell noted that Mesa taxpayers actually pay $4.6 million for light rail maintenance after revenues are factored in – including a $2.2-million cut of fares and $1.28 million in Arizona Lottery funds.

Mesa paid for its $10.6-million share of the $186-million extension without placing a burden on the general fund by using state Proposition 400 sales tax revenues that had been set aside for road widening projects in the future.

Mayor John Giles said he still believes Metro Light Rail is worth it, because of its economic development potential.

Some examples of light rail-driven projects include the downtown Arizona State University campus, the temple renovations and new development under construction nearby, and Chicanos por la Causa’s development of a large apartment complex on the former Bailey’s Brakes site at Country Club Road and Main Street.

“This is what it costs for us to have light rail in Mesa,’’ Giles said. “Mass transit doesn’t pay for itself, either. Transportation is not a money-maker.’’

But he said transportation is an essential service and part of having a functional, well-rounded community.

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