Metro light-rail service

A light-rail train makes its last eastbound stop at the Sycamore and Main street station.

Transit planners will look to push light rail further into the East Valley to meet the high ridership levels they've projected once the system gets east of downtown Mesa.

A study will begin soon on an extension to Gilbert Road, which planners say would further boost commuter use. Metro Light Rail originally planned extending to Mesa Drive in 2016, but a study showed higher ridership by going east two more miles. The Gilbert Road extension made sense after the system opened in 2008 and the end-of-the-line Sycamore Station in Mesa became the busiest on the 20-mile system, said Wulf Grote. Also, ridership studies show cars at the park-and-ride lot aren't just from that neighborhood.

"People travel quite a way to get to an end-of-the-line park and ride," Grote said. "People are willing to travel well over 10 miles to get to that lot."

Metro has found the Sycamore lot is popular with Chandler and Gilbert residents heading to Arizona Diamondbacks games, said Metro spokeswoman Hillary Foose.

"As part of making this a regional system, we want to connect the corners of the Valley. It's an East Valley terminal for sure," she said.

Gilbert Road's access to the Loop 202 and its busy bus line make it more attractive to commuters than Mesa Drive, Grote said.

The $200 million extension to Mesa Drive is funded locally, though some federal funding is in question. The Gilbert Road extension is unfunded, as it was identified so recently. It would likely cost $140 million to $160 million.

Metro plans an 18-month study to better understand costs, station locations and to get public feedback. The study requires Mesa's City Council to approve its $500,000 cost, which is expected to happen Monday.

Metro has planned for about 37 miles of extensions to its system, funded partly through a half-cent sales tax called Proposition 400 that voters approved in 2004. The two miles between Mesa Drive and Gilbert Road aren't part of that and will likely need to find an unconventional funding source, Mesa Mayor Scott Smith said.

He was in Washington D.C. Wednesday to advocate for new kinds of transportation funding that could allow cities to borrow money at low interest rates, then repay the federal government or investors, Smith said. Cities would not seek federal grants as they have on other transportation projects, he said, but would repay the money to avoid adding to the federal debt.

That would allow the Valley to fund rail extensions and freeways that have been dropped from Proposition 400 funding after the recession slashed the amount of funds taken in. Cities must invest in transportation and other infrastructure that spurs economic growth, he said, despite political pressure to cut virtually every spending type in the recession's wake.

"We cannot let a crisis stop us from continuing to invest on the things that have driven the economy more than almost anything else, and that is our excellent infrastructure," Smith said. "If we let our infrastructure fall behind, we become a Third World country."

Smith lobbied for the new funding ideas with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was promoting his America Fast Forward proposal. Smith said the idea is fairly new but is gaining bipartisan support from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, as well as the heads of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO.

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