Connecting Phoenix and Tucson

Arizona is one of the nation's fastest growing states, with much of the growth occurring in the "Sun Corridor" between Phoenix and Tucson. That growth has clogged the sole high-capacity transportation connection between the two cities, Interstate 10. Connecting Phoenix and Tucson documents the benefits of adding intercity rail as a new transportation option for Sun Corridor residents, including cleaner air, less time wasted in traffic, and new opportunities for jobs and economic growth.


Over the past few decades, explosive population growth in Phoenix and Tucson has led the two cities to grow increasingly interconnected, socially and economically. It has also resulted in increasing traffic congestion problems, particularly on Interstate 10, which connects the two cities. Phoenix, Tucson, and the cities between them along I-10 compose Arizona’s “Sun Corridor”—the fastest-growing region in the state. With this growth expected to continue in years to come, Arizonans face a pressing need for improved transportation options. Passenger rail between Phoenix and Tucson can help meet the future transportation needs of the Sun Corridor.

Intercity rail between Phoenix and Tucson will reduce pollution, save time, and play an important role in building and sustaining a strong economy for the region, all while giving Arizonans appealing new transportation choices.

Arizona is ready for intercity rail.

  • Arizona’s population has nearly doubled over the last 25 years, straining the state’s transportation infrastructure, particularly in the fast-growing Phoenix-Tucson “Sun Corridor.”
  • Arizonans are ready for new transportation options, including intercity rail. Rising gasoline prices have led Arizonans to reduce their driving and to seek out new options for getting around. Arizonans drove 1,000 miles less per year per capita in 2010 than they did in 2006—a drop of about 11 percent.
  • The State of Arizona has studied the potential for intercity rail service between Phoenix and Tucson for nearly three decades and has recently taken the first key steps to make passenger rail a reality. The Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) completed Arizona’s first State Rail Plan, which includes a plan for implementing intercity passenger rail throughout the state, and the State Transportation Board unanimously accepted the plan in March 2011. One of the key steps to implementing intercity rail in Arizona is currently underway as ADOT conducts the first rail Environmental Impact Statement, which will be completed in 2014.

Intercity rail will require significant public investment, but will deliver substantial benefits for the state’s economy and quality of life, as evidenced in other western states that have built intercity and commuter rail lines.

  •  Construction of the 45-mile southern half of Utah’s FrontRunner commuter rail line between Salt Lake City and Provo and its four adjoining light rail lines is expected to create 2,700 direct jobs, with additional jobs in services, supplies and maintenance.
  • In New Mexico, the intercity rail line connecting Albuquerque to Santa Fe currently attracts an average of 4,500 people per weekday—about 12.5 percent of the total number of people who traveled in the I-25 corridor each day before the train was built.

Based on the short-term intercity rail alternatives outlined by ADOT in previous studies, Arizona’s intercity rail system can be expected to move more than 1.2 million people through the Sun Corridor each year. By building a line between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona can expect to achieve the following benefits:

Economic benefits—By improving interconnectivity between Phoenix and Tucson, intercity rail will make the Sun Corridor a more attractive place for both employers and workers.

  • Businesses benefit from rail investments that improve travel in the Phoenix-Tucson corridor through expanded labor market access and the benefits of “agglomeration economies”—that is, an expansion in the number of people who can easily interact with one another in a regional economy.
  • Rail service will help ensure that the Phoenix-Tucson area remains attractive to young people, who increasingly prefer alternatives to driving. From 2001 to 2009, the average annual number of vehicle miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased by 23 percent nationally.
  • Rail will increase mobility for seniors and people with disabilities who are unable or do not wish to make the drive between the two cities.
  • Intercity rail creates more jobs during construction than highways. By investing in intercity rail, Arizona can create at least 30,000 additional job-years of employment. Those workers will then spend their wages in Arizona’s economy, and the tax revenue they provide will further offset the cost of the public investment in the rail line.
  • Passenger rail would also boost local economies, including local hospitality and tourism industries, by attracting visitors with the prospect of hassle-free travel between cultural centers and sporting and other events within the Sun Corridor. It would also increase property values and spur new residential and commercial development around stations.

Benefits for train riders—Intercity rail will provide significant benefits for its riders, who will help pay for its operation through fares.

  • Intercity rail riders can expect to save approximately $750 million (net present value) over 30 years in reduced costs for gasoline, repairs, and other operating costs for private vehicles. In addition, the availability of rail service will provide a hedge against further spikes in gasoline prices—in a high oil price scenario, consumers could save an additional $58 million during that time period.
  • Train riders will also save approximately $150 million worth of economically productive time over 30 years—both as a result of less time spent sitting in traffic and the potential to use time spent on the train working, studying, or engaging in other activities that are difficult or dangerous to perform while driving.

Benefits for drivers—Even Arizonans who rarely or never set foot on an intercity rail train will experience significant benefits from the rail line.

  • Arizona drivers will save valuable, productive time by avoiding peak-period traffic congestion as a result of intercity rail.
  • Even infrequent riders of intercity rail will benefit from its availability as a backup transportation option when travel on I-10 is impeded by weather, accidents or construction; when a car is suddenly and unexpectedly unavailable (for example, due to mechanical difficulty); or for special events such as sports events, concerts or festivals when parking and traffic congestion are of particular concern.

Air quality benefits—Intercity rail service will likely reduce smog-related emissions by 1,500 pounds per year in the Sun Corridor and carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 33,500 tons per year.

Safety improvements—Based on national transportation safety statistics, intercity rail could be expected to prevent approximately 1,990 injuries over 30 years. It would also significantly reduce traffic fatalities on I-10, which numbered more than 80 between 2000 and 2005. Intercity rail can also be expected to reduce the economic impacts—in health care costs, lost productive time, and property damage—of traffic accidents.

Transportation system benefits—Arizona could experience a greater reduction in vehicle use, traffic congestion and pollution if intercity rail encourages more Arizonans to use existing and proposed transit systems such as Valley Metro, the Tucson modern streetcar, and commuter rail. In addition, the infrastructure investments made in the Phoenix-Tucson corridor could reduce the ultimate costs of providing commuter rail service by sharing stations and other infrastructure between the two services.

Policy Recommendations
Arizona needs to complete the ADOT Passenger Rail Corridor Study as quickly as possible and move forward with construction of intercity rail between Phoenix and Tucson.

  • Recent changes in Arizona—from shifting population and driving trends to higher projected gasoline prices and increased demand for transportation alternatives—have rendered the state’s previous analyses of rail options outdated. To ascertain the benefits that intercity rail can deliver to the state, Arizona should ensure that the Passenger Rail Corridor Study is done thoroughly and completed in a timely fashion.
  • Arizona should quickly obtain funding for an intercity rail line. The Arizona Department of Transportation has already estimated the cost of the line from other rail projects, and the state should seek funding now to ensure that the projects is “shovel-ready” after the completion of the environmental impact assessment.
  • Arizona should maximize the benefits of its investment in rail by ensuring that the line is integrated with a vibrant public transportation network and supports the development of communities with a range of transportation options. Ideally, the line would also allow for eventual introduction of faster rail service.
  • Arizona should also ensure that its investments in intercity rail are made wisely by ensuring that any private-sector participation in rail construction adheres to common-sense principles for protecting the public interest. Harnessing private investment can help provide resources to build passenger rail, but the public must retain control over planning and key decisions, and private deals need to operate with their books fully open to the public.

Jordan Schneider

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.