Tempe’s streetcar has shattered expectations by serving more than 800,000 passengers in its first 16 months of operation, which is more than double the ridership target that transit officials were hoping to hit by July 2024, according to data from Valley Metro.
The trolley went online in May 2022 and operates on a looped track that spans 3 miles of city streets. It starts at East Apache Boulevard and South Dorsey Lane and picks up passengers every 15 to 20 minutes at 14 stops near points of interest — such as Sun Devil Stadium and City Hall — before turning back at the Marina Heights business center.
Unlike light rail — which can carry about 175 passengers through three Valley cities on out-of-the-way tracks — the streetcar travels alongside cars on regular roadways, holds about 125 people per trolley and Tempe is the only Valley city where it exists.
Valley Metro started building the $200 million system in 2018. It was funded with a mix of federal grants, regional tax revenue and a local public-private partnership among Tempe, Arizona State University and other property owners near the tracks.
Officials expected that roughly 330,000 passengers would use the trolley within 26 months, but it just about hit that target within its first seven.
This month, the streetcar reached its July 2024 target two-and-a-half times over, a success that city spokesperson TaiAnna Yee attributed to the system’s route and quick pickup times.
“The streetcar’s addition (to the transit system) is connecting ASU, redevelopment sites along Rio Salado and historic neighborhoods that may have had little to no transit service previously,” said Yee, who added that the trolley’s “shorter distances between stops and frequent service make it more accessible and rider-friendly.”
Valley Metro’s data shows the streetcar’s popularity is on the rise. It served about 46,000 riders each month on average in 2022, a figure that has increased to about 54,000 so far in 2023, a 17% uptick.
And there’s an effort underway to build on that success by extending the system into Mesa, along Rio Salado Parkway and Dobson Road. Mesa officials contend the project is critical to meet an overwhelming transit need in the western part of that city.
But the expansion faces financial trouble.
The $400 million project was counting on funding from the new iteration of Maricopa County’s Proposition 400, a voter-approved initiative that uses a half-cent sales tax to fund billions worth of transportation projects across the Valley.
Prop. 400 is set to expire in 2026, and state lawmakers locked horns about the amount of transit funding that was included in its 20-year extension plan earlier this year. The argument was largely along party lines, with Republicans wanting less transit spending and Democrats demanding more.
The two sides reached a compromise on Aug. 1 that continued funding for the operation of existing transit but cut out money for any significant system expansions. The Mesa-Tempe streetcar was one of the casualties of the agreement.
The broader impact on Tempe:Losing Proposition 400 funds is Tempe’s transit nightmare as lawmakers question light rail
On top of the $190 million in direct Prop. 400 funding that the project lost, redlining the streetcar also jeopardizes roughly $113 million worth of federal matching funds, which are typically made available only when there’s a significant source of regional funding dedicated to a project.
But the two cities haven’t given up on the expansion and are currently working with Valley Metro to study how exactly the project could work. The plan also could involve Mesa adopting its own transit sales tax to fund the project, or the two cities partnering with local businesses like Tempe did the first time around.
Mesa City Manager Chris Brady said “we have to let the dust settle” and figure out how to best leverage available federal dollars to make the project possible. Yee believes the solution could include cash from the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and the $400 billion Inflation Reduction Act.
“We may look at mirroring what we did for this first segment, which is to include private partnerships, but we also have options we didn’t have previously, such as an increase in federal funding,” the Tempe spokesperson told The Arizona Republic.
“The expansion of public transit is important to any community, but with Tempe’s continued increase in population and employment density, it is essential to ours.”