PHOENIX (Part 1 of 2 in a series) - It's 3,000 miles away but may as well be the "Tampa Bay" of the desert. It's got a similar climate, economy and sprawled-out population as Tampa.
But Phoenix and Maricopa County are about 10 years ahead of Tampa and Hillsborough County when it comes to the development of light rail. Residents there passed a sales tax referendum in 2000, much like the one Hillsborough County voters will weigh in on next month.
Photo Gallery: Phoenix's light rail
Part II: What's the true cost of light rail?
Just like in Hillsborough County, residents of Maricopa County had to approve a light rail plan without knowing exactly where the trains would stop. The measure even failed three times in the 1990s.
But since rail opened in Dec. 2008, many of the system's critics have been hushed by numbers that exceeded expectations. Phoenix already boasts the 13th most popular light rail system in the country and its 40,000 riders per weekday exceed original projections by 46 percent.
Transit supporters say the numbers speak for themselves. They also say light rail has sparked development, reduced emmissions, and eased traffic congestion slightly on local roads.
"People," said METRO Light Rail Spokesperson Hillary Foose, "whether they use the system or not, are seeing the value."
But critics say congestion is just as bad since some driving lanes were reduced. And they say the expense of creating and operating the line was unjustified.
The 20-mile initial line runs from north of Phoenix through downtown, to Tempe (home of Arizona St.) and ends in Mesa. It was built at a cost of $1.4 billion - 54 percent of which came from voter-approved city and county taxes. The rest came from federal grants.
Commuters into Phoenix and students in Tempe make up large chunks of the ridership, but with stops in close proximity to the area's museums, malls, and sporting venues, many riders are getting on-board for lesuire transport too.
Average weekday ridership in 2010 is hovering around 40,000 people while weekend ridership has averaged about 22,000. Initial projections estimated only 16,000 weekend riders.
Development is booming around the rail too, with METRO estimating $5.9 billion in private investments around rail lines and rail stops. New restaurants, condos, and offices have begun to spring up.
But along with its success, METRO Light Rail experienced some growing pains. There were 52 train-involved accidents in 2009 - most of which were "fender-benders" involving drivers unfamiliar with new road signals.
Video: Light rail accidents in Arizona
Some businesses in Downtown Phoenix went under when extended construction kept customers away from their store fronts. Some that survived complain about reduced parking now.
Passengers also board on the honor system, paying at a meter on the train platform. Officers conduct random checks with steep fines for riders who don't pay, but some estimates indicate up to 10 percent of riders aren't paying.
However, 10 News observed the majority of riders paying their $1.75 fare per trip (or $3.50 to ride all day). And riders described their new form of transit as "convenient," "exciting," and "necessary for a big city."
"I get to live downtown," said Tom Bruton, an ASU student who commutes from Phoenix to his classes in Tempe. "I don't have a car here, so (rail) opens up different parts of the valley to me."
Light rail may not be a quicker alternative for most riders traveling into the city from the suburbs (although many said it is quicker during rush hour). However, riders also told us that their time is more productive while riding the train. Instead of focusing on driving a car, they can read a book, check e-mail, or make phone calls.
Foose, who met with Hillsborough County business leaders when the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce visited Phoenix in September, says voters in Tampa Bay should vote for the referendum because its a vital component in managing the region's growing, sprawling population.
"Your population isn't going to stand still," she said. "You need to have the infrastructure in order to support that growth. So that takes a mixture of highways, roadways, but also transit."
Part 2 of 10 News' series on light rail's effects on Phoenix will explore what kind of return the region is getting on its $1.4 billion investment and what Hillsborough Co. voters should keep in mind before casting their ballots in November. Tune in Tuesday night at 11 p.m.
Connect with 10 News reporter Noah Pransky on Facebook at www.facebook.com/noahpransky or Twitter at www.twitter.com/noahpransky.
Noah Pransky, 10 News