April 2, 2021
Will an Amtrak stop be coming to Phoenix for the first time since its last train left the station nearly a quarter of a century ago?
Time will tell, but a proposed map of expanded service released by the passenger train service this week includes Phoenix for the first time since 1996.
The additions will only come to fruition if Amtrak secures the $80 billion proposed by President Joe Biden as part of his infrastructure plan.
Known as the American Jobs Plan, the program would allocate $2 trillion to rebuild the nation's aging infrastructure by 2035. Biden earned the nickname "Amtrak Joe" in the 1970s for using the route from Washington, D.C., to his home in Delaware as his primary mode of transportation.
In a statement, Amtrak said it would bring "energy-efficient, world-class intercity rail service" to up to 160 new communities across the nation.
“President Biden’s infrastructure plan is what this nation has been waiting for," Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn said in a statement. "Amtrak must rebuild and improve the Northeast Corridor, our National Network and expand our service to more of America."
The map displays potential routes connecting Phoenix and Tucson to large California cities like Los Angeles and Riverside, and even to Las Vegas.
Amtrak spokeswoman Olivia Irvin told The Arizona Republic on Friday that the map is subject to change, and more specific details will come out regarding each region in the next month.
Phoenix remains the largest city in the U.S. without Amtrak service. Service never resumed after it was shut down in June 1996 for the extended criminal investigation of a derailment near Hyder in western Arizona that killed a crewman and injured 78 people.
Today, Valley residents who want to use Amtrak must travel to Maricopa, about 35 miles south of Phoenix.
Critics say it's money down the drain; others say that's not the point
Public spending on Amtrak and other transit systems has faced intense criticism from conservatives for years.
Oil billionaires Charles and David Koch have tried to derail public transit plans in cities across the nation such as Little Rock, Arkansas, to Nashville. They have also targeted light rail expansion in Phoenix, calling such projects "wasteful spending."
The pair backed a group of Arizona business owners and developers who petitioned to get a proposition on the ballot that would prevent the city’s South Central light rail extension. It was ultimately rejected.
But author Tom Zoellner, a professor at Chapman University in Southern California, said that public investment in transportation benefits communities in a variety of ways.
"There's no question we won't make a profit on this, but that's not the point," said Zoellner, a former Republic reporter and author of the book “Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World — From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief.”
More travel options relieve stress on other infrastructure elements in a bustling city, Zoellner said. If Amtrak were to add stops in Tucson and Phoenix, as the map suggests, there would be less traffic downtown, on Interstate 10 and fewer short-haul flights to each destination, "some of the worst polluters when it comes to climate change."
"This is simply amazing for the environment," Zoellner added.
From 1825 on, Zoellner said railroad history shows wherever you put a station, the real estate value around it "skyrockets." A rehabilitated Union Station accompanied by dining options and shops would increase visitation, too.
"Regardless of whatever complaints you have about subsidies, this will boost the gross domestic product in Phoenix," he said.
The Amtrak statement echoed these claims, saying, "If Congress provides the funding proposed in the President’s plan, Amtrak would be able to bring the (northeast corridor) to a state of good repair and improve trip times, and would also expand Amtrak to underserved communities across the nation. This would create jobs, improve the quality of life, reduce carbon emissions and generate economic growth."
If the Amtrak expansion is successful, it could also spark interest in funding additional transportation projects, said Audra Thomas, transportation planning program manager for the Maricopa Association of Governments.
"It would all utilize the same corridors and so this could help enable a future commuter rail investment in the region," she said. "This is the best path forward to diversify our transportation portfolio."
This isn't the first time, might not be the last
In 2009, then-President Barack Obama's stimulus package pledged billions for transportation, which included the vision of a high-speed rail Phoenix wanted in on. In July 2009, 40 states, including Arizona, applied for high-speed rail grants, totaling $105 billion in requests, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Ultimately, the plan never saw the light of day.
In 2010, a plan to bring Amtrak back to Phoenix also died from lack of funding and tough track-access negotiations.
"Here we are, years later, and we have just a little inchworm of pathetic progress," Zoellner said. "God bless Joe Biden, let's be on his side on this, but they do have a way of running into many financial and logistical problems."
In other words, it's a waiting game. Phoenix economic development officials said they were unable to confirm if the city is preparing for the possibility of reestablishing rail service, but Zoellner said it would be a waste to not seize the moment.
"This isn't some charming toy we are playing with," he said. "This is a real, working, big city piece of furniture that has highly practical value. The time is now."