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$740 million Sky Train extension expensive, divisive

Posted at 9:48 PM, Dec 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-24 00:40:08-05

PHOENIX — The future of transportation at Sky Harbor is up in the air after Uber and Lyft have threatened to cease operations over increased rideshare airport fees.

One thing that is definitive though, a massive construction project that will extend the Sky Train to the Rental Car Center. The 2.5 mile extension will also feature a stop at 24th Street which will allow for passenger parking and pickup.

Once the elevated train is operational in the Summer of 2022, all the bus shuttles will stop at the Rental Car Center near 16th Street and Buckeye Road.

"It's great for accessibility, it will also reduce roadway congestion and it will make the travel experience much smoother for our travelers," said Heath Shelbrack, a spokesperson with Sky Harbor.

The Skytrain website also notes another benefit is "improved accessibility, especially for customers using wheelchairs."

The project is projected to cost $740 million dollars. Sky Harbor says all of it is being funded by taxes collected at the airport, specifically Rental Car Customer Facility Charges and airline Passenger Facility Charges.

"If you're coming to the airport to park, or shop, or eat, a portion of that money goes towards the Phoenix Sky Train. No local tax dollars are used," said Shelbrack.

The Phoenix City Council approved $265 million for the project in May 2018.

Shelbrack says the project is on budget, but some are unsure if it is worth the cost, especially given the current use of the Sky Train.

"I would rather see it go towards expanding the light rail then expanding the Sky Train," said Kayleigh Steele, who rides the Sky Train to work at an airport restaurant.

Steele was one of just a handful of people on the Sky Train Monday evening. She says "it is normally this busy."

Most of the riders were pilots or flight attendants. One pilot remarked to ABC15 that their parking was moved near the 44th Street drop off point in order "to increase ridership" on the Sky Train.

"It seemed like it was only employees of the airport and that is definitely an odd sight to see," said Phoenix Rumsey, who rode the Sky Train after landing to visit family in Mesa.

"It’s not like a public transportation. It’s not being used largely," said Steele.

When asked how they get people to try and use the train and change their behavior, Shelbrack said, "Well we’ve been trying to encourage people via social media, via our website, anytime the holidays come up, to use it. So that they are aware of it," she said.

Some people believe the investment is smart and practical.

"It's incredible. They obviously have a lot of money being poured into it. Will it pay off? Hopefully, With all the visitors coming in, [and] a lot of popular events coming to the city, could be well worth it," said Marc Hernandez, from Gilbert, who had just returned a rental car.

The construction will be done in 2021, but train car testing will take place for roughly a year until 2022. "If they are already paying for it, you might as well use it," said Hernandez.

The rideshare giants, Uber and Lyft, have criticized the train extension, and argue that they are being penalized with increased fees to help fund the city's project.

A spokesperson for Sky Harbor did not answer specific questions about how the aiport is working to repair the rideshare relationship, or the internal response to the criticism and public outcry.

The airport did clarify though, that none of rideshare fees, current or future, are being used for the $740 million dollar construction project. The can, however, be used for Sky Train operations and maintenance.

The Sky Train may see increased ridership after January 17, if Lyft and Uber both follow-through with their threats to cease operations at the airport.

Many people have already noted that the rideshare cars can still pickup just off airport property near the 44th Street station.