AZ: Town blows off talk of commuter rail

Jan. 3, 2024
The hands-off approach is quite a bit different from what Gilbert, Ariz., officials espoused in spring 2022.

Dec. 31—Gilbert is taking a "we don't care" attitude on whether Amtrak stops in town or not as a study looks at the potential resurrection of commuter rail between Phoenix and Tucson.

Arizona this month received a $500,000 federal grant to augment the $3.5 million that state leaders have already committed to planning passenger rail service between the state's two most populated cities.

"The Town of Gilbert has not taken a position or taken any action to advocate for or against a rail stop in Gilbert," read a statement issued by town spokeswoman Kailey Latham. "Nor do we have any planned discussions on this topic."

The hands-off approach is quite a bit different from what town officials espoused in spring 2022.

At that April 26 meeting, staff asked for council's permission to spend $288,760 for a feasibility study of two proposed transit stations in the Heritage District and the Cooley Station community. The centers would serve as hubs for commuter rail and other modes of transportation such as bus, bicycle and rideshare.

Amtrak in 2021 announced its plan to connect up to 160 communities in over 25 states by 2035, including providing daily train trips between Phoenix and Tucson. It included a number of stops along the route, including Mesa, Queen Creek and Tempe.

Although Gilbert was not on the initial list, the town supported its vision, according to Amtrak.

Town Development Services Director Kyle Mieras explained to the council in 2022 that Gilbert, the Arizona Department of Transportation and Maricopa Association of Governments have been working on passenger rail in the Valley and through the town since 1993.

"Back in 2013 there was a study being commissioned by ADOT that looked at commuter rail from Tucson up through Phoenix and at that time (the sitting) Gilbert Council did sign a letter of support for that study," Mieras said.

"There was a federal record of decision that came down that identified that rail line through Gilbert as the most favorable one. It had the highest ridership, it showed that the station locations were very favorable and this was a study that had gone on for several years.

"This has definitely been something that has been at the forefront of our thoughts and transportation planning for a while."

Mieras at the time told the council that staff had met with — and given ample information to — an Amtrak official who agreed that " Gilbert is ripe for a station location."

Mayor Brigette Peterson added that an Amtrak representative was shocked to learn that Gilbert was not on the initial list of station stops.

The transit center study request ended up being tabled until a new council was seated in 2023.

But former Councilwoman Aimee Yentes introduced an ordinance that banned the town from participating in discussions and using municipal resources toward furthering commuter rail and light rail.

That, too, was put off and later resurrected by the three new comers Bobbi Buchli, Jim Torgeson and Chuck Bongiovanni. Light rail was never in the plans for Gilbert.

The trio failed to get their ban passed at the February 2023 meeting, prompting Councilman Scott Anderson to question if it was good policy to "let that train go through town with no opportunity to gain economic development from it."

He added that he was unsure if he would support a total ban against any opportunity "to at least locate a station in the town if that happens in the future."

And, Peterson noted that the town has no say in where Amtrak eventually would locate its station stops. Council later adopted a ban against using town resources on anything involving light rail.

During the time, the public pushed back against the idea of any rail service coming to Gilbert, claiming it would bring in crime and increase taxes and showed up in force at council meetings.

The Maricopa Association of Governments and Amtrak would not comment if Gilbert was still in the running for a stop and referred all questions to the Arizona Department of Transportation, which is handling the study efforts.

"ADOT's study process will examine potential locations for stations," said ADOT spokesman Steve Elliott. "That means no decisions have been made."

Elliott noted that the "Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision posted in 2016 by ADOT and the Federal Railroad Administration listed a potential station in Gilbert."

A Tier 2 environmental study, which includes public involvement, is required to finalize an alignment and other critical details such as a final list of stops, he said.

According to ADOT, the federal grant will allow the state agency to develop a scope, schedule and budget for a Service Development Plan.

This will then be followed by more involved steps, which are expected to be largely funded through Federal Railroad Administration grants.

ADOT pointed out that there is currently no construction scheduled and no funding identified for connecting Phoenix and Tucson with passenger rail service.

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