Arizona’s New Frontier

Moving Our Transportation System into the 21st Century

Over the past few decades, Arizona’s population has skyrocketed. This population growth has not been matched by public transportation investment, and Arizona’s resulting dependence on cars is hurting the state. The recent surge of support for public transportation in Arizona is a step in the right direction, and the expanded bus service and new Valley Metro light rail are beginning to relieve congestion, reduce our dependence on oil, curb pollution, stimulate the economy, and help to sustain healthy, vibrant communities. This report quantifies the problems Arizona experiences from our dependence on cars and the benefits from public transportation, and outlines a vision for public transportation in Arizona, including 10 public transit projects that would benefit the state.


Over the past few decades, Arizona’s population has skyrocketed. This population growth has not been matched by public transportation investment, and Arizona’s resulting dependence on cars is hurting the state. High and wildly fluctuating gas prices add to Arizonans’ economic woes, traffic congestion wastes valuable time and energy, and our cars and trucks produce pollution that harms Arizonans’ health and contributes to global warming.

Recently, there has been a surge of support for public transportation in Arizona, and the subsequent expanded bus service and new Valley Metro light rail have been a boon to the state and its residents. The public transit systems in Arizona are beginning to relieve congestion, reduce our dependence on oil, curb pollution, stimulate the economy, and help to sustain healthy, vibrant communities.

Arizona needs a transportation system that meets the needs of the 21st century – one in which public transportation plays a much bigger role than it does today. Arizona should build on the public transit investments we’ve recently made and work to provide all Arizona residents with the transit options they need. To get there, we need to start investing now in critical public transportation projects.

Public transportation helps address Arizona’s economic, transportation and energy challenges.

  • Public transportation pays dividends for Arizona residents and our economy.
  • In 2006, public transportation in Arizona saved approximately 5.8 million gallons of oil, saving consumers more than $15 million at the pump.
  • Public transportation prevented almost 3 million hours of traffic delay – equivalent to about 68,000 work weeks – in the Phoenix metropolitan area in 2006, saving the economy more than $55 million in wasted time and lost productivity. In the Tucson metropolitan area, public transportation prevented half a million hours of traffic delay, or 14,000 work weeks, preventing over $11 million worth of wasted money and productivity.
  • Public transportation is helping to reduce global warming pollution in Arizona, averting about 7,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution in 2006, the equivalent of taking over 1,100 cars off the road.
  • More and more Arizonans are choosing to take public transit rather than drive. Travel via public transportation in Arizona has increased at a faster rate than automobile travel since the early 1990s – with the number of passenger miles traveled on transit jumping 76 percent between 1993 and 2006.
  • Transit ridership continues to increase. In the first eight months of 2008, ridership on the state’s transit lines jumped 8.8 percent versus the year before, compared with a 2.9 percent drop in vehicle travel.
  • 74.8 percent of Arizonans still drive to work alone while only 2.1 percent take public transportation, meaning that there are plenty of opportunities to entice new riders to transit.

Our public transit system has not kept up with growing need. Arizona residents drive more miles, spend more on gasoline, experience more congestion, and produce more global warming pollution from transportation than they did two decades ago.

  • Vehicle travel on Arizona highways increased by approximately 80 percent between 1992 and 2007. This is due both to a larger population and to more driving per person – the average Arizona resident is also driving about 11 percent more miles each year than 15 years ago.
  • Arizona residents spent about $4.5 billion more on gasoline in 2006 than they did in 1998, a product of more miles being driven in less efficient vehicles, coupled with higher gasoline prices.
  • Congestion on Arizona roads has continued to get worse. In 2005, Phoenix area residents spent about 82 million hours in traffic delays, while congestion cost the area’s economy about $1.7 billion. In the Tucson metropolitan area, travelers spent about 17 million hours in congestion, and congestion cost about $338 million.
  • Transportation is a leading source of global warming pollution in Arizona. Arizona’s transportation system produced 65 percent more carbon dioxide in 2005 than it did in 1990.

There are dozens of worthy public transit improvements that would give Arizona residents alternatives to the rising cost of driving, reduce congestion by removing cars from the road, save oil and reduce pollution.

A comprehensive transit system for Arizona would include the following representative projects (not in order of priority):

A New Transportation Future for the Sun Corridor

  • Starting passenger rail service between Phoenix and Tucson, making travel easier between the cities as they become more and more interdependent.
  • Extending the new Valley Metro light rail system to Glendale, easing commutes and providing access to Glendale’s growing list of entertainment facilities and workplaces.
  • Extending Valley Metro along I-10 West to Tolleson, expanding travel options between Phoenix and the burgeoning West Valley to relieve congestion on I-10.
  • Building a commuter rail line between Phoenix and Wickenburg, increasing options for commuters in some of the most quickly growing cities in Arizona.
  • Extending the Orbit Shuttle Bus to South Tempe, giving neighborhoods easy and free connections with downtown Tempe, Arizona State University, and the Valley Metro light rail line.
  • Building and expanding a modern streetcar system in Tucson, helping people get around downtown and spurring investment in local business districts without creating new traffic and parking problems.

Adding Transportation Options Across the State

  • Launching bus service to connect Kingman, Bullhead City, and Lake Havasu, to increase the convenience of transportation for these rural towns.
  • Launching the Mountain Links Bus Rapid Transit line in Flagstaff, connecting North Arizona University and downtown Flagstaff with local shopping and residential areas.
  • Expanding public transportation in Yuma, to provide more frequent and flexible service on current bus routes and build transit infrastructure with an eye towards future growth.
  • Improving paratransit service in Mesa and elsewhere, providing vital transportation options for the elderly and disabled.

To build a 21st century transit system that will accommodate Arizona’s current population and expected enormous growth, the state needs a visionary and comprehensive public transportation plan with a stable and long-term source of funding. Arizona should do the following to address current and future transportation needs:

  • Develop a statewide transportation plan which ensures that Arizona’s public transportation systems meet the state’s current and future transportation needs, and increases integration between local, regional, and tatewide transportation agencies.
  • Establish a stable, statewide source of funding for public transit that will ensure that the system can meet growing demand. By tying transportation funding to local sales taxes, we guarantee that public transit will falter just when Arizona needs it the most.
  • Prioritize investments in public transit in plans for state transportation investment.
  • Require that all proposed transportation investments be evaluated for their impact on oil dependence and global warming pollution. State government buildings should be located, to the extent possible, in areas with accessible transit service. And Arizona should encourage local governments to adopt land-use plans and zoning reforms that allow for and encourage compact development in and around transit stations.
  • Urge the U.S. Congress to revamp federal transportation policy when the federal transportation funding law comes up for reauthorization in 2009. Revisions should include shifting resources from highway expansion to transit projects and focusing federal money on strategic goals such as transportation system efficiency and safety, energy conservation, environmental improvement, and the creation of compact, sustainable communities. (April 2009)

Siena Kaplan

Policy Analyst

Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.

Diane Brown

Executive Director, Arizona PIRG Education Fund

Diane E. Brown has worked with the State PIRGs for over 35 years, over half serving as the Executive Director of Arizona PIRG. She is a leader in efforts to protect consumers from unfair marketplace abuses and unsafe products; promote 21st century energy and transportation options; and foster an accessible and accountable government. Diane frequently works with diverse entities; advocates and testifies before elected and governmental officials; and appears on television and radio and in newspapers across the state. Diane’s leadership has helped to secure public interest victories at the Arizona Legislature, the Arizona Corporation Commission, and various state agencies. Diane is a recipient of awards from the Arizona Capitol Times, Phoenix Business Journal, League of Women Voters of Arizona, and Arizona League of Conservation Voters.