Editor’s note: See our feature story on the Metro Light Rail system currently running on the front page of Progressive Engineer Magazine (www.ProgressiveEngineer.com)

Phoenix, Arizona’s METRO received regional approval recently from the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) to move forward with 2.6-miles of modern streetcar that will run in the Mill Avenue corridor between Rio Salado Parkway and Southern Avenue in Tempe. The streetcar project is a result of a three-year study that evaluated high-capacity transit improvements to support Tempe and Chandler and enhance the existing, regional transit network.

“I’ve seen streetcar’s success as a public transit option and economic development generator during my time with TriMet, the regional transit agency in Portland, OR,” says METRO CEO Steve Banta. “Streetcar, working in conjunction with other modes, is a next step in developing a total transit network that supports metro Phoenix growth.”

Several study recommendations were made and approved by the Tempe City Council and METRO’s Board in November and MAG’s Regional Council at a recent meeting meeting. In addition to streetcar, the study calls for a bus rapid transit (BRT) line on Rural Road, connecting the cities of Tempe and Chandler. Both streetcar and BRT are viable projects and should be implemented as funding permits. Streetcar will advance first as local funding is available from Proposition 400, a countywide, half-cent transportation sales tax renewed by voters in 2004. METRO will also apply for a federal grant to support approximately half of the $160 million capital cost.

“The streetcar will connect a large number of our residents to light rail while creating an important connection between our neighborhoods and downtown,” says Tempe Councilmember and METRO Board member Shana Ellis. “The recently built streetcar projects in Portland and Seattle have demonstrated that empty storefronts and retail centers are reinvigorated, bringing new and desired amenities to neighborhoods and creating a thriving pedestrian environment.”

The MAG action adds the project to the long-range transportation plan and transportation improvement program, which underwent an air quality conformity analysis in January. Also in 2011, METRO, working closely with the city of Tempe, will convene a community working group to help technical staff define the vehicle, stop locations and street configuration of the future streetcar project. At the same time, METRO will begin its application to the Federal Transit Administration for grant dollars. Construction is slated to begin in 2013 and operations in 2016.

For more information, including maps, collateral material and FAQs, on Tempe Streetcar, visit www.metrolightrail.org/tempesouth.