Phoenix Gets Light Rail Phonenix opened its first light-rail line over the weekend. The 20-mile line begins in the suburb of Mesa, goes through downtown Phoenix, the airport and the Diamondbacks' Chase Field. It ends in North Phoenix. The project is the culmination of more than a decade of planning and a $1.4 billion budget.

Phoenix Gets Light Rail

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This past weekend was a big one in Phoenix, and not just at the mall or the multiplex. The city debuted something it's been talking about for more than a decade - its first light-rail line. From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Rene Gutel reports.

(Soundbite of light rail train)

RENE GUTEL: A sparkly new aqua and gray train pulled into the Phoenix suburb of Tempe Saturday morning. The train glided to a stop at a platform in the middle of a wide city street. Nina Rigsby came with her whole family to ride the rail for the first time, and she was impressed.

Ms. NINA RIGSBY: That's slick. (Laughing) Oh, so nice.

GUTEL: The 20-mile line begins in the suburb of Mesa, then scoots through downtown Phoenix, along the way passing the airport and the Diamondbacks' Chase Field. It takes a turn right and ends in North Phoenix. The project is the culmination of more than a decade of planning, four years of construction, and a budget that grew to $1.4 billion. Standing on the platform, Rigsby said it was worth the wait.

Ms. RIGSBY: Oh, we're so excited about this. We've been waiting while they built it. It's really quite an event.

GUTEL: The opening weekend was an event. The city hosted block parties at several stops and the trains filled to capacity, with some eager riders having to wait as long as three hours to board a car.

(Soundbite of announcement)

Unidentified Man: Doors will be closing very quickly. Please catch the next train. This train is full, just go ahead and catch the next train.

GUTEL: To understand why the kickoff of a public transportation project is so popular, you have to understand something about Phoenix - the car is king. Sprawling developments have led to gridlocked freeways. Phoenix is the nation's fifth largest city and one of the fastest growing regions in the country, but transportation infrastructure hasn't kept pace. Valley Metro's CEO, Rick Simonetta, says light rail is an effort to change that.

Mr. RICK SIMONETTA (CEO, Valley Metro): Many people that I meet will say this is a no-brainer; we should have been doing this a long time ago. But we're finally there, and hopefully, we'll try to catch up.

GUTEL: But one gleaming, new light-rail line won't solve all of region's transportation problems. The Phoenix metro area spreads out across more than 500 square miles, and in traffic, it can take up to an hour and a half to go from one end to the other. Light rail officials say an average of 26,000 people will ride the rail line every day, which is a drop in the bucket when compared with the region's population of more than four million.

(Soundbite of light-rail train)

GUTEL: And that's not lost on many of the riders on opening day. Twenty-two-year-old Everett Christiansen(ph) rode the light rail on Saturday. He was headed to pick up his girlfriend, a trip he usually takes by bus.

Mr. EVERETT CHRISTIANSEN: This stretch right here connects, you know, east to west. That's good. You also need to have a little bit of north to south. I don't think it will be substantial enough in the end, just this line, but if they ever start branching out, that'll really be what's required to actually have an impact.

GUTEL: And that's the rub, many riders say the line is great if you live near it. But until it's extensively built out, which isn't likely to happen for years, light rail's biggest accomplishment may be symbolic. Tempe resident Dianne Craybill(ph) says light rail puts Phoenix on the map.

Ms. DIANNE CRAYBILL: I think it will help people back east realize that Phoenix is up and coming, and we do actually exist some place in the West. We have metro, we have bus, we have everything that New York City has.

GUTEL: OK, so that might be overstating it. But it shows that Phoenix is taking a step toward more cohesive development and a bit less sprawl. For NPR News, I'm Rene Gutel in Phoenix.

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