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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Considerations Related to Streetcar Reverse-Running Operation

Title: Considerations Related to Streetcar Reverse-Running Operation
Phase: Planning, Design
Category: Management
Date: July 2023

1. Background

Description of Tempe Streetcar Project - Valley Metro (VM) is responsible for the development and operation of the Phoenix region’s light rail transit (LRT) and streetcar system. The initial 20-mile LRT line opened in December 2008 and has since been expanded to 28 miles. Two (2) additional LRT expansions totaling 7 miles are in the construction phase. VM and the City of Tempe initiated construction on the Tempe Streetcar Project (TSC) in June 2017 and opened the TSC to revenue service in May 2022. VM received FTA participation in the amount of $75.0 million through a Small Starts Grant Agreement (SSGA) to construct the TSC. The total project budget for the TSC is $192.4 million.

The TSC is 3.0 miles in length from the first station on Rio Salado Parkway to the last station on Apache Boulevard and includes 3.6 miles of single and double track located at-grade in the medians and the outside lanes of existing streets. Six (6) 112-passenger streetcars serve the route, operating in a combination of exclusive guideway and mixed traffic flow. The TSC intersects the existing LRT network at two (2) locations along the streetcar alignment where patrons may ingress and egress the LRT and streetcar networks. A portion of the TSC runs off-wire and operates using on-board batteries. Fourteen (14) stations have been constructed and are similar to Valley Metro bus stops. Station amenities include a shelter, level boarding platform, lighting, trash receptacle, map, advertising panel and public art. The TSC links Tempe Town Lake, Downtown Tempe, several destinations around Arizona State University’s (ASU) campus and existing and future employment and activity centers.

2. Lessons Learned

Condition - The City is very transit-oriented, in part due to ridership by students attending Arizona State University which is located within the City. The City is home to various sporting and special events held throughout the year. Some of the special events held in the City have been held for more than 50 years and have become part of the fabric of the community and an important economic generator. The special event durations range from several hours for small events to multiple days for major events. The special events within the City are primarily held on Mill Avenue between 3rd Street and 9th Street (see map).

When the TSC was in the early planning stages, planners realized that accommodations would have to be designed into the project to allow those special events to continue while still maintaining streetcar service.


The TSC was designed to operate within the street right-of-way along with vehicular traffic rather than have an exclusive guideway. VM and the City initially planned to have two-way (double) track constructed on Ash Avenue so Mill Avenue could be closed during special events, however, the second track had to be removed due to budgetary limitations. Given double track could not be constructed, VM and the City planned to maintain streetcar service during special events by reverse-running streetcars against traffic on Ash Avenue, University Drive and Rio Salado while Mill Avenue was closed to streetcar service.


VM and the City found that reverse-running streetcar operation was more complicated and more expensive than initially thought. VM and the City found that considerable resources are needed to safely reverse-run streetcar operations against vehicular traffic during events. Public safety officers were needed at each intersection to ensure safe operation and those officers were not readily available due to staff shortages and higher priorities. If the reverse running was implemented, multi-day events consumed considerably more resources than initially anticipated; resources needed for policing the event itself. VM and City reluctantly had to terminate service through the Mill Avenue corridor during some special events.

VM recently initiated a study to evaluate potential options to implement a reverse-running operation, including the addition of a second track along Ash Avenue, University Drive and Marina Heights. Other alternatives, including the re-routing of streetcars on the LRT alignment, are also under consideration.


VM is recommending that agencies evaluating reverse-running operations consider the following:

  • Review the special events that have historically taken place along the alignment. Determine whether those events will necessitate temporary closure of the streetcar system. Ensure stakeholders and funding partners understand the special event agreements that are in place and the system operating requirements and limitations.
  • The operating plan, including potential closures, should be thoroughly vetted and documented. Agreements that address operating decisions between agencies should be formalized early in the planning process.
  • Do not assume that special event staff and public safety officers will be available to accommodate reverse running and or re-routing of streetcar service during special events. VM found the actual cost of providing the necessary number of staff to be considerably higher than initially thought and availability of those human resources to often be limited due to other priorities.
  • Operational requirements, decisions and agreements should be reviewed at each stage of the design process.

3. Applicability

These lessons can be beneficial to agencies implementing streetcar systems and considering reverse-running operations.

4. References