Game Changers: Politics, People & Performance

Jessica Mefford Miller

Light rail is a game changer for our community. It has changed where and how development is focused, how people choose to commute, how they enjoy our cultural scene, and notably, how our community feels about public transit. In some circles, however, it’s a lightning rod in a debate concerning modes of high-capacity transit.

Our system made the national spotlight in 2019 when a local initiative, seeking to prohibit all future rail expansion, made it to the ballot. Proponents sought to redirect funds to other local transportation projects. Had the initiative been successful, it would have resulted in a playbook for overturning voter-approved transit programs nationwide.

Residents of Phoenix chose, for the third time, to continue their support for transportation options, including expanding light rail investment, because it continues to be a game changer for our community. Light rail has attracted $17 billion in development across Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa, AZ. It serves 32,000 boardings each day, connecting riders to work, school, and recreation. Rail connects with a regional bus network across 525 square miles and 100 routes. It also intersects with our hybrid streetcar system in downtown Tempe.

I stepped into my new role as chief executive officer at Valley Metro in April 2022. While I was prepared for the challenge of leading the evolution of an expanding system, I had no way of knowing how heated the battle would become as the region sought to secure our transportation sales tax renewal—a funding source that has been in place in the region for the last 40 years.

As CEO, my vision is to cultivate a culture reflective of a high-performing sports team, where each athlete knows their role, strives for excellence in execution, and is locked into optimal performance. In public transportation, we strive to deliver what our customers need: reliable and predictable transportation options that are accessible, safe, and welcoming for riders of all backgrounds.

The Valley of the Sun is growing and changing fast—so too must we. The Valley Metro team is reimagining service to better align with our mission of connecting communities and enhancing lives. We’ve recently completed a five-year strategic plan aligned around our “north star” of delivering excellent customer experiences. Our initiatives include creating a more holistic customer experience, from ease of fare purchase to comprehensive trip planning across all services, including microtransit, to a unified customer relationship management tool.

Like many of our peers, we’ve seen marked shifts in the challenges our residents face. Lack of affordable housing, increased substance abuse, and mental health concerns impact all of our communities. Public transit, one of the last truly public spaces, acutely feels these impacts. We are leaning into these challenges to ensure our system is safe, secure, and, working alongside regional partners, provides a platform to critical services. We are committed to investing in our talent, leveraging technology, and, now more than ever, making data-driven decisions to deliver effective and transparent service.

Valley Metro continues to invest in high-capacity transit for our fast-growing community. In May 2022, we launched the region’s first streetcar service. In January 2024, we opened Phase II of our Northwest Light Rail Extension, expanding our system to 30 miles. Next year, we’ll open the South Central Extension/Downtown Hub light rail extension, creating a two-line rail system centered in downtown Phoenix and a link to south Phoenix. With several other light rail, streetcar, and bus rapid transit projects in various stages of planning and design, we’ll soon expand our system to 50 miles. Recognizing changing travel patterns, together with our partners, we’ll be embarking on a comprehensive operational analysis of the regional system. This work will drive shifts in existing service delivery, network design, and exploration of emerging technologies, such as microtransit and autonomous and connected vehicles.

Valley Metro is governed by 19 local jurisdictions, each with their own unique character and vision. Our future success depends, in part, on our ability to collaborate with the communities we serve and ensuring that our regional transit service is grounded in the values and aspirations of each community. It is my hope that residents across our region will, once again, choose to continue to invest in balanced, multi-modal, regional transportation.

As transit industry professionals, we’re part of a nationwide team that embraces change to serve the evolving needs of our customers and communities. We do so because we provide a critical public service. We know transit is a game changer. I’m proud to be part of this industry and to see our great progress at Valley Metro. Read full article

Chief Executive Officer
Valley Metro
Phoenix, AZ