A Light at the End of the Track

Phoenix light rail system under construction

Maricopa County, with Phoenix at its center, is experiencing surging growth. With population, job base and density increasing, the county’s highways have become choked with commuter congestion. Phoenix city officials are looking for solutions to public transportation woes. To offset these issues, construction recently began on a light rail system that will transport thousands of commuters each day in the Phoenix area.

The light rail system will offer riders a quick link between Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa and will be an integral part of a comprehensive countywide transit system.

Much of this extensive project’s construction work has already begun. When completed in 2008, the rail system will stretch 20 miles from central Mesa, west through downtown Phoenix and into north Phoenix.

The Phoenix light rail owner Valley Metro’s vehicles will operate on electricity from overhead lines rather than electrified tracks. The vehicles can be linked into three-vehicle trains, which will operate on two sets of tracks going in opposite directions. Each three-car train has a capacity for 550 passengers. The system will be able to carry between 3,000 and 5,000 people per hour during peak hours.

Voters approved the initial $1.4 billion, 20-mile line, and approximately 40 percent of its funds come from a federal grant. The Regional Transportation Plan approved by voters also includes 27.7 miles of future light rail extensions.

All aboard
To begin, the project team was assembled. A joint venture between general contractors Sundt Construction, Inc., Tempe, Ariz., and Stacy and Witbeck, Inc. Alameda, Calif. The companies are slated to construct the maintenance and storage facility, where the entire transit system originates and several sections of the rail line.

And to complete the team, Sundt/Stacy and Witbeck awarded the $2.79 million electrical contract to Commonwealth Electric Co. of the Midwest (CECM), Phoenix. Mass. Electric Construction Co., with headquarters in Boston and a branch in Phoenix, will provide electricity to the light rail lines.

The maintenance and storage facility
Everything centers around a maintenance and storage facility, which will house and service the new rail cars. It needed to be completed as rail vehicles began to arrive. Located east of the Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, the 45-acre site includes room for expansion.

The site is on a riverbed, which required 600,000 cubic yards of material to fill before construction began. It also includes a bridge over the Union Pacific railroad tracks and an irrigation canal. The bridge links the 20 miles of general tracks to the maintenance and storage facility.

Valley Metro will use the maintenance and storage facility to clean, inspect, repair and maintain the light rail vehicles as well as to store them when they are not in use. Maintenance will take place at night in most cases. In addition to the 40 light rail vehicles, Valley Metro will employ more than 100 people at the facility, including light rail operators and maintenance staff. One important component for the project is to ensure room for expansion. The facility will be able to hold another 50 vehicles and 50 more employees if necessary.

The maintenance of equipment building is a 138,000-square-foot structure that includes a basement, first floor, mezzanine and second floor. The basement includes equipment storage such as train wheels and trucks and an elevator that raises them to the first floor. Five light-rail tracks lead into the building. The maintenance building will have its own heavy equipment such as a 10-ton overhead crane and a car lift that can raise an entire light rail vehicle. Office space for maintenance personnel and inspectors, management and a conference room are on the mezzanine and second floors.

“I think in the arena of industrial facilities, the unique thing about this project is that it services and maintains trains,” said Metro Valley project engineer Avrum Loewenstein. Despite this specific application, the wire, breakers and panels are similar to those used in any other industrial building, he said.

At the facility, CECM installed all high-voltage and infrastructure gear, including switches and panels. Workers installed the 15 kV distribution for the site. This consisted of more than 10,000 feet of cable.

While the steel schedule caused CECM a delay, Joe Amavisca, CECM superintendent, said, the company was able to maintain the schedule with extra men. At peak, it had about 20 men on the site. Labor was in short supply in Phoenix because of several large projects including the rail system, but Amavisca said the company was able to man the project adequately.

The site included a variety of subcontractors working around each other, including Mass Electric whose workers were tackling the overhead catenary system track electrification and signals and communications systems.

The building also includes a fire detection system, subcontracted to Signal One, Tempe, and communications infrastructure systems installed by Cable Solutions, LLC, Tempe.

Another facility in the complex is the maintenance of way (MOW) building, which serves signaling, track and communications crews who maintain and repair the light rail lines and signals related to them. The 14,000-square-foot building houses a two-ton crane, workshops, storage rooms, office space and small pieces of equipment. CECM extended the 15 kV line from the main building into this building then onto the light rail vehicle (LRV) washing building. The 8,000-square-foot LRV building serves as a center for crews to wash the rail cars when they are not in service. It includes a fully automatic wash system with brushes.

The facility has a platform for yard service and cleaning. Here, on the 500-square-foot platform, crews can clean the interior of the vehicles and add sand to the brake system.

All of these facilities rely on carefully planned and installed electrical systems to power a variety of functions.

Turning on the power required careful coordination between the city of Phoenix, Arizona Public Service (APS) and the contractor, according to Loewenstein. APS built a new substation to service the facility and the series of buildings, he said.

APS brought power to the building in August as well, and the facility went live in September.

“There is an unusually high voltage on the front end,” said Bryan Terry, project superintendent. The high-voltage power is to accommodate the service entrance section (SES), which arrived by dedicated truck from the east coast in August.

Because the maintenance and storage facility is the flagship portion of the project, staying on time was essential to maintain popular support for the light rail system. 

The second floor of the maintenance building was the first to open for occupancy by mid-October.

The maintenance and storage facility is scheduled for completion early in 2007.

Delays and unexpected issues
From the onset, there were delays. Although Sundt/Stacy and Witbeck were awarded the project in September 2004, permit problems related to design issues needed to be cleared through the city of Phoenix, which put much of the work on hold.

“We did the early site work to prepare the site, which included bringing in engineered fill to raise the site out of a flood plain,” said said Bill Zeiss, Sundt/Stacy and Witbeck joint venture project director. “But then it became apparent that building design work was not completed.”

Most of 2005 involved preparing the earthwork, undertaking track work and procurement of steel. Once permit problems delayed the project, many scheduled tasks fell behind. The companies lost their opportunity for steel, Terry said, and had to wait again. Terry was charged with getting the foundation done ahead of the steel.

“Bryan was able to mitigate some of that by using innovative ways to get the concrete in,” Zeiss said. Despite the innovation, the delays continued to fall on contractors, including CECM.

Other unexpected issues came to play, including the rising cost of copper that made it necessary to secure enough copper for the construction site along all the tracks. Even so, some copper was taken from the overhead catenary system in an isolated area.

Record heat offered another challenge for contractors, but most beat the worst of the heat by arriving on the work site at about 5 a.m. Concrete, which is heat-sensitive, was poured at night using construction lights.

Zeiss said, “We tried to be the problem solver [for Valley Metro], to solve some of the interface issues to meet the global test track date.” The test track date is April 1, 2007.

“We’re used to doing that,” Zeiss said. “This is the first flagship project. Although it’s just a 20-mile starter, it will grow and it will be nice to know we were there to get it started.”            EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.

About the Author

Claire Swedberg

Freelance Writer
Claire Swedberg is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com .

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