Voters shot down a proposition providing money to expand bus services in Flagstaff during the last election, but that hasn’t stopped staff at the Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority (NAIPTA) from looking at the future.
Case in point, downtown Flagstaff might be seeing a more developed Mountain Line connection center after Flagstaff City Council gave the go-ahead to explore expanding the agency’s current site on Phoenix Avenue.
Mountain Line has used the location as the agencie's hub since 2008 and every one of the agencies' 10 bus routes runs through it. But NAIPTA CEO Erika Mazza said the agency has outgrown the current infrastructure.
At the moment, the connection center has no amenities for the public or Mountain Line drivers, and only limited shelter for those waiting for buses during the winter or late summer, NAIPTA Development Director Kate Morley told council this week.
Perhaps more importantly, as a result of how busy the site has become, Morley said it is difficult for drivers to navigate as the location has become unable to support all the buses that navigate through it. To address the spacing issues, the agency, Morley said, has been looking at sites the agency could build a larger downtown connection facility, preferably on the current site at Phoenix Avenue.
Morley said the agency is looking at two other areas of downtown that are large enough to support such a development, but said she could not go into detail, adding that the city-owned Phoenix parcel is their choice of priority.
In addition to acting as a connection center on the ground floor, the new building could also provide administrative offices for the agency and a place drivers could leave belongings.
The building could also include space for a lost and found, as well as kiosks to buy bus passes so riders no longer need to drive to the NAIPTA headquarters on the east side of Flagstaff. More protected waiting areas would also be a priority, and Morley said the building could also include commercial or retail space the agency could rent out.
Morley said the hope is the facility might serve more than the Mountain Line bus system, potentially accommodating companies like Greyhound, FlixBus or Arizona Shuttle -- which currently stop at the train station nearby.
Council was enthusiastic about the idea.
“I love this, I want to get started yesterday,” Councilmember Jamie Whelan said.
Mayor Coral Evans agreed and wondered if in addition to retail space such as a facility could also include apartments on upper floors. Evans suggested while some apartments could be designated affordable, the agency could also rent out market-rate units.
The city has considered building a parking structure on the site of the current municipal courthouse and Councilmember Charlie Odegaard brought up the possibility of a pedestrian bridge between a future parking structure and a new connection center building.
Odegaard admitted the idea may be unrealistic especially because of the cost, but said they can always start with an ambitious plan and scale it back later.
Councilmember Jim McCarthy said whatever they decide on, the agency should future-proof the facility.
“We don’t want to do this in a way that 20 years from now we're like, ‘Well we’ve got to build a new one from scratch,’” McCarthy said. “I am literally excited about this; I think it’s very cool.”
Morley said they want to build a facility to accommodate 15 buses at one time.
There are some challenges that could make the construction of the facility on Phoenix Avenue difficult. For one, the Rio de Flag runs through the east side of the parcel and it is not known how that might restrict development.
Phoenix Avenue is also fairly narrow and Morley said it can be difficult for their drivers to navigate, especially with other buses and drivers on the road.
NAIPTA received a $6.7 million grant from the Federal Transportation Administration for the purposes of building a new connection center, but Mazza said the agency is also looking for other partners that can bring money to the table, whether they are in the public or private sector.
Morley added they are hoping to have the basic planning phase completed by December so the design work can be completed throughout 2020. That would mean construction could take place over 2021 and the facility would be ready by 2022; although she warned this timeline could change.
In 2008, the downtown connection center saw 158 bus stops per day, but the number has grown to about 355 stops today. The number or trips the Mountain Line provides has similarly grown from about a million to 2.5 million annually.
Of those, about half a million trips enter the bus system through the downtown connection center each year.
The size of the buses accessing the facility has also increased. In 2008, the buses that made up the fleet were no larger than 40 feet, but today Morley said most of their buses are 40 to 60 feet in length.