WASHINGTON – State and federal agencies have started taking public comments on a Tucson-to-Phoenix rail line, the first step in a yearlong environmental impact study on the proposal.

The comment period by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Arizona Department of Transportation started Friday and will continue through Nov. 1. This Tier 1 phase of the study will determine the need for high-capacity transportation in the area and the appropriate type.

But once the study is done, little can happen if no one picks up the tab on what could be a multibillion-dollar project.

“We’ll certainly need a funding source,” said Serena Unrein, a spokeswoman for Arizona Public Interest Research Group, which backs the plan.

The idea of a Tucson-Phoenix rail line has been discussed for years. But the state lacked an approved rail plan and impact study, which cost the project a chance at federal stimulus funding in recent years.

In March, the state transportation board approved the line as part of the Arizona State Rail Plan, which details billions of dollars worth of work to connect communities across the state via rail.

The state plan estimates that a new double-tracked commuter line connecting Phoenix and Tucson – the so-called Sun Corridor – would cost about $2 billion, including trains and cars.

Without action, the drive from Phoenix to Tucson could take more than five hours by 2050, assuming that Interstate 10 is expanded from four to 10 lanes, the state Transportation Department has said.

It points to a boom in population and employment between Phoenix and Tucson as the reason for the traffic clogs. The agency expects more than 12 million people to live in Phoenix, Tucson and along the Sun Corridor by 2050.

Erik Stewart of Tucson takes I-10 about once a month to reach Valley markets with his small jewelry business, chewing up as much as four unproductive hours in his Toyota Celica.

If he could use a train ride to do “monotonous tasks” like calculating inventory and updating his website, it would free him to spend more time designing and cutting jewelry in his Tucson studio.

“I’m just wondering how long I’m going to be able to do this once (the business) evolves and expands,” he said of his I-10 drives.

The Sierra Club has also said it supports the concept of an intercity rail line. Sandy Bahr, director of the club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said that if a commuter train ran alongside I-10, its negative environmental impacts could be minimized while taking cars off the road and providing an anchor for public transportation projects within the cities.

“It’s a real step in the right direction that this is being seriously considered,” Bahr said, noting that the group will still try to make sure any rail project affects the environment as little as possible.

The ADOT will also take comments on its website and by mail until Nov. 14, the department said.

Joshua Armstrong is a reporter for Cronkite News Service.

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