The Phoenix Experiment
Our columnist rides the rails in a city known more for sprawl than transit.
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Map courtesy Valley Metro
My plan was straightforward. I was going to take the PHX Sky Train from Terminal 4 of Sky Harbor International Airport to the Valley Metro Rail stop at 44th Street and Washington. From there, I’d ride the line directly to my hotel in downtown Phoenix. No big deal. It would be faster and easier, in theory, than my New York excursion: taking the AirTrain from JFK to Jamaica and picking up the J train back to Williamsburg. But in sprawling Phoenix, mass transit is a twenty-ﬁrst century phenomenon and still somewhat exotic. A single $1.4 billion 20 mile rail line opened for business five years ago, and a pair of extensions recently began construction at the far ends of the route.
The PHX Sky Train, which opened earlier this year, ran about every three minutes, as advertised, and delivered me swiftly to a futuristic tubular station connected by covered walkway to an outdoor light rail platform in the middle of sun-baked Washington Street. The surrounding landscape was bland in a way that I think of as Phoenix-speciﬁc. A generic beige airport hotel stood across the street and the overall terrain was either black asphalt or desert dust.
The exception was the metro station, designed by DWL Architects + Planners, a ﬁrm with ofﬁces north of downtown Phoenix. The narrow platform—serving eastbound trains headed to Tempe, home of Arizona State University, and to the city of Mesa, and westbound trains traveling toward downtown Phoenix and the lively crossroads of Camelback Road and Central Avenue—was an assemblage of small acts of kindness. Overhead were a series of fabric shade canopies, and the framework in the middle of the station island supported tiers of perforated, rust-colored louvers, both of which afforded relief from the sun. A stout green drinking fountain, distinctly unpromising in appearance, dispensed wonderfully chilled water.
A streamlined eastbound train blanketed in a jumbo Coors ad arrived and departed. But no Phoenix-bound train. Another Mesa-bound train arrived. The doors opened, and the conductor made an announcement about delays. The train sat for about 15 minutes and ﬁnally pulled out. Others awaiting the west-bound train packed it in, dashed across a couple lanes of trafﬁc, and caught the nearest bus. I waited. A third Mesa-bound train came and went. No announcements were made, except for a few about not skateboarding on the platform. I waited for nearly an hour before I gave up on mass transit in Phoenix. Later, I learned that at almost the exact instant that I set foot on the platform, 1:15 p.m., a “major power event” zapped the system. Service was either slow or nonexistent for roughly an hour and resumed, predictably, the moment I dashed back to the airport to catch a taxi.