A Phoenix council member wants to keep out light rail riders who don’t pay fares. Here's how

By Christina Estes
Published: Thursday, September 14, 2023 - 4:05am
Updated: Thursday, September 14, 2023 - 7:15am

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Light rail heading south on 19th Avenue
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Light rail heading south on 19th Avenue on Sept. 11, 2023.

After years of hearing complaints about light rail security, one Phoenix council member wants to consider adding barriers to keep out people who don’t pay fares.

How it began

In March 2016, Phoenix and Valley Metro celebrated the opening of the northwest extension, 3.2 miles along 19th Avenue between Bethany Home Road and Dunlap Avenue.

“We’re finally here after three years of construction,” said Daniel Valenzuela, who represented the area on the City Council at that time.

“So many small businesses are out here saying, ‘We appreciate this project, we like this project,’” said then-Mayor Greg Stanton.

Problems and perceptions

One year later, at a community meeting, the comments were much different.

“Had I known then what I know now I would’ve fought this tooth and nail,” said Mark Jacobsen who lived near 19th Avenue.

Not long after light rail came to 19th Avenue, Phoenix police started getting more calls: mostly trespassing, shoplifting and stealing. In late 2016, cops conducted a crime suppression pilot program, but a few months later, Jacobsen saw little improvement.

“I’m tired of riding on filthy seats with drug addicts shooting heroin next to me,” he said.

Light rail platform at 19th and Northern avenue
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Light rail platform at 19th and Northern avenues on Sept. 11, 2023.

“That’s really important to us, to make sure that we’re hearing what you all need,” said Maria Hyatt, who was the city’s transit director in 2017. “Every year, we add more funding to address security needs.”

Two years later, as a candidate for City Council, Betty Guardado heard about it. “That was one of the big concerns and we’re talking 2019."

Now, four years after being elected, and seven years after the 19th  Avenue extension, Guardado is hearing more of the same. The latest frustrations expressed last week to the city’s public safety subcommittee.

"Security on light rail is an absolute disaster."
— Jeff Spellman, Violence Impact Project Coalition

“Security on light rail is an absolute disaster,” said Jeff Spellman, with the Violence Impact Project Coalition, a group that's spent years working with various city departments and neighborhood groups to address safety and quality of life issues. “We need to hold Valley Metro more accountable.”

“I feel bad for them,” said Councilman Jim Waring who represents much of northeast Phoenix where there is no light rail. “This is a city made problem that was brought to their doorstep.”

During his 12 years on the council, Waring has repeatedly criticized the system as expensive and inefficient and questioned security.

“I will say that these are things that should’ve been thought about long before this system was set up,” he said.

In 2011, three years after the initial 20-mile line opened, Phoenix received a $3 million federal grant to create five community vision plans. The goal was to maximize the billion-dollar light rail investment by guiding development to benefit residents and enhance communities along the line.

Valley Metro pays Allied Universal Security to provide guards
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Valley Metro pays Allied Universal Security to provide guards (wearing yellow vests) along the light rail line.

Deirdre Pfeiffer, an associate professor at Arizona State University's School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning worked on the project, known as Reinvent Phoenix. In 2017, she told KJZZ News: “The research tells us that there’s a fairly high likelihood that that neighborhood is going to change in some way, after that transit station comes in. Every community, every neighborhood should have a plan.”

Community planning efforts are underway for the extension south of downtown, which received a $1 million grant, and the northwest extension to the former Metrocenter Mall, another $1 million grant recipient. But there was no federal money to design such a plan for 19th Avenue. In 2017, concerned residents, businesses and schools formed the 19North Community Alliance and, in 2018, the group began brainstorming ways to “build safe, walkable communities for all to enjoy”.

Security staff and police support

Valley Metro is responsible for light rail's design, construction and operations. It pays Allied Universal Security to provide guards to patrol light rail platforms and ride trains. It’s their job to check passenger fares and enforce the code of conduct.  

Between January and July, Valley Metro said guards removed more than 18,000 people in Phoenix, mostly for not having fares. Twenty-five guards were assaulted, along with 81 passengers. Valley Metro CEO Jessica Mefford-Miller said most assaults were between people who knew each other.

"The idea that you as a customer, me as a customer, would ride the system and be assaulted or threatened is a mischaracterization of the actual experience."
— Jessica Mefford-Miller, Valley Metro CEO

“The idea that you as a customer, me as a customer, would ride the system and be assaulted or threatened is a mischaracterization of the actual experience,” she said.

At the end of August, the security guard vacancy rate was 28%. Of the roughly 85 guards, about half cover Phoenix. Valley Metro estimates passengers see guards on a third of the trains. Fifty percent coverage is their goal. Miller told the council guard wages have been raised and Valley Metro is working with Allied Universal to improve frontline supervision.

At 19th Avenue and Dunlap, the current end of the line, she said a large pedestrian and customer plaza that’s also available for community events is temporarily closed for modifications to make it paid zone, “so, that means if, during a non-event period, you’re in that space, you must possess a valid fare and that’s intended to reduce the incident of loitering at that critical station.”

Miller said Valley Metro is exploring ways to offer resources to people dealing with mental health issues, substance abuse and homelessness.

The police department’s transit unit shared its current enhanced light rail security plan. Phase one, which lasted four days, focused on establishing a public safety presence and educating people about transit civil codes and conduct. The second phase, to last 8 days, includes citing repeat offenders and assisting security guards with trespassing violations. The final phase is what Assistant Chief Sean Kennedy described as ongoing maintenance.

a light rail platform
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Valley Metro said the goal is for security guards to check 20% of passengers to ensure they have proper fare. As of early September 2023, it was 12.3%. Of those fares inspected, 88% were compliant.

“During this phase we’ll look to conduct enforcement at least one day a week, additional days will be added as needed based on crime data as well as community concerns,” he said. “The plan is built to be flexible and can move to different platforms as needed.”

Two residents expressed concern about transit officers, who also respond to issues at bus stops across the city, being pulled away to work on light rail.

“You know we always rob Peter to pay Paul,” said Councilwoman Guardado, whose district includes 19th Avenue. “And I think it’s about time that we hopefully try to figure out a different solution.”

Potential physical changes

Guardado asked how many people it would take Valley Metro and the police department to fix things. She wants to compare those costs with the cost of adding infrastructure around platforms to keep out people who haven’t paid the fare.

“Everyone keeps saying,' Oh, it’s a lot of money, we cannot do it, it’s too much.' But then at the same time, we’re putting together a plan that’s not really going to work — not because we don’t want it to work but because we just don’t have the manpower to be able to make it happen,” she said.

Staff will gather financial information and the topic will come back to the council. So will Shannon McBride, with 19North Community Alliance, who shared survey results from the area.   

“Businesses and residents and landowners in the light rail corridor of central Phoenix are asking us to prioritize safety improvements in their community,” she said.

They’re hoping — after seven years — the next discussion will lead to lasting change. 

Light rail train southbound on 19th Avenue
Christina Estes/ KJZZ
Light rail train southbound on 19th Avenue on Sept. 11, 2023.

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The light rail platform at 19th and Glendale avenues
Christina Estes/KJZZ
The light rail platform at 19th and Glendale avenues on Sept. 11, 2023.