Stop Your Railing!

Sure, light-rail construction is painful, but it will be worth it in the long haul

Most businesses on the rail-construction line, though hurting, will survive. And it may sound harsh, but even if they don't, plenty more entrepreneurs are lined up to take their places.

Businesses have had years to plan and prepare for the construction, and they're getting lots of help. Even critics like Wimberly pepper their complaints with praise for the way government officials and the construction companies doing the work act promptly when problems arise.

The reality is that it looks worse than it is out there for businesses.

Light-rail stations and trains will breathe more life into downtown Phoenix — at least, that's the hope.
Mike Maas
Light-rail stations and trains will breathe more life into downtown Phoenix — at least, that's the hope.
George & Dragon owner David Wimberly says light-rail construction is driving away customers. He wants the city to waive his sales tax.
Martha Strachan
George & Dragon owner David Wimberly says light-rail construction is driving away customers. He wants the city to waive his sales tax.

Sure, some of the most vulnerable will be weeded out. Is that a crime, or is it merely capitalism?

In any case, it's a fiscally foolish idea to give away huge taxpayer dollars to keep afloat a select few merchants whose business acumen ranges from savvy to incompetent.

Even with reasonable government assistance in play, weak ventures are going to wither and die in this Darwinistic landscape.

The strong will not only survive, but — if those who have gone through light rail before are any barometer — will thrive. Eventually.

And the rail line, still slated to start carrying passengers in December 2008, will be a great amenity for the Valley.

To be sure, one of the project's goals is to reduce the adverse effects of the construction on businesses.

But the first priority is to build the thing.

"Infrastructure for the future comes at a cost," says Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon. "But it will be paid back in dividends. And a lot of [business owners] know that, and they are just trying to figure out day-to-day how to get through this."

Negative effects from the construction were unavoidable from the beginning, because the route plows through the most densely populated areas of the Valley.

The new railroad track goes from 19th Avenue and Montebello, south on 19th Avenue to Camelback Road, east to Central Avenue, and south to Washington and Jefferson streets. From there, the tracks enter Tempe via a bridge over the Town Lake, through downtown Tempe's Mill Avenue and south to Apache Boulevard. Less than a mile of line is in Mesa, ending its eastward push at Sycamore Street. (See map.)

Neighborhoods were warned that roadwork would go on for 14 to 24 months in front of any given spot along the way.

At the start, more than 250 businesses were condemned and relocated, while others were truncated and remodeled, to make space for the trains.

Some businesses moved out for the duration of the construction, and the rest battened down the hatches.

The construction phase is not for the timid. It's ugly and it's painful.

But c'mon — it's not that bad.

Not a single business has been sunk because of light rail. Not yet, anyway. That's the official line from the cities of Phoenix and Tempe, and it's hard to disprove. Without an audit and knowledge of the firm's history, there's no way to say for sure why a business fails.

Lack of customers, which no doubt had something to do with the construction, played a role in the closing of at least one business, A Taste of N'Awlins, as detailed below.

But as Lance Armstrong would say, it's not the bike.

Take the case of Pita Jungle in Tempe, a well-managed eatery that in 12 years has managed to expand once and open two other Valley locations. Hit with a one-two punch on both its access roads, Apache Boulevard and Terrace Road, the place stayed so busy that its owners spent $40,000 in June to expand into an adjacent 1,000-square-foot space.

In downtown Phoenix, ground zero for light-rail construction, city finance department reports show restaurants and bars and retail shops took a big hit in revenue in the months after construction started in March 2005. But they're making a fine comeback.

Downtown restaurants and bars posted receipts of $38 million by late spring 2006. That's not too shabby considering it's $10 million higher than the same period in 2004, when the roads were still intact.

Retail businesses in the studied area (from Fillmore to Jackson streets, and from Seventh Street to Third Avenue) aren't faring quite as well and have been making less money since the construction began.

Save the tears, though: Downtown retail has been gaining revenue for the past 12 months, even through the summer doldrums. Retailers made $9.2 million in sales between July and September, compared with $6.6 million the summer before. (The reports also show how minuscule the downtown retail industry is in comparison with that of the entire city, which posted overall summer retail revenues of $3.6 billion.)

Elsewhere along the light-rail route, new businesses are opening in seeming defiance of common sense.

We can see certain shops struggling with access and traffic problems, and assume their sales are affected. The broadcast media have focused on a few hardship cases.

So if it seems like businesses near light-rail construction face imminent economic collapse, it's an understandable misperception.

In a society trained to seek out instant gratification, the building process of light rail — not to mention the hoped-for benefits — grinds out in the achingly long-term.

One thing is certain: We have no choice but to adapt to light-rail construction, because it will be going on for a long, long time.

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