Stop Your Railing!

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

The starter line won't be done for two years. After that, there'll be a two-year respite, and (assuming there are no major snafus) construction will begin anew on the extensions.

It's helpful to keep one thing in mind while dodging barricades and rolling at two miles per hour single-file with other motorists through Construction City:

We brought this on ourselves.

Barry Schoeneman runs one of the many businesses that recently opened in the middle of light-rail construction.
Martha Strachan
Barry Schoeneman runs one of the many businesses that recently opened in the middle of light-rail construction.
The initial light-rail line is 20 miles long, but in 2004 voters approved 27 more miles of track. Click here to view enlarged map.
courtesy of Valley Leadership
The initial light-rail line is 20 miles long, but in 2004 voters approved 27 more miles of track. Click here to view enlarged map.

The apparent chaos on the streets started at the polls.

With transportation a growing concern in 1985, Maricopa County voters agreed to pay for dozens of miles of new freeways by raising the sales tax half a cent for 20 years. The vote also created Valley Metro, which organized bus service and looked into trains as a future mass-transit option.

Four years later, in 1989, voters killed the ambitious, $10 billion ValTrans proposal that would have built — among other things — 103 miles of elevated commuter trains around the Phoenix metro area.

Rail boosters were undeterred. And as the county's population grew from 2.1 million in 1990 to more than 3.7 million today, voters changed their minds about trains.

Tempe and Mesa voters approved paying for light rail by bumping up their sales taxes in the late 1990s.

Phoenix got on board in 2000 after residents voted two-to-one to increase sales tax for light rail. Plans were soon worked up for the $1.4 billion starter line. A public-naming contest dubbed the system "Metro."

Before the construction even started, county voters in 2004 gave a thumbs-up to extend the 1985 tax for wider freeways, more buses and — at a cost of $2.3 billion — the addition of 27 more miles of light-rail tracks.

In March of 2005, just weeks after the federal government awarded its $587 million share of the funding for the starter line, the jackhammers began sounding.

The main notion of light rail is that it will move large amounts of people who might otherwise be driving cars, thus reducing traffic and air pollution. It's estimated that 26,000 people a day will ride it at first, but it could carry twice that number.

True, the population density of Western cities such as Phoenix makes rail a less efficient option than in, say, New York City. Manhattan is just 24 square miles, yet has roughly the same number of residents as Phoenix, a sprawling mega-suburb that encompasses 515 square miles.

But light-rail lines have still become popular in San Diego, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Portland and Denver, judging by how many people ride them and how voters in those cities keep approving light-rail extensions.

Los Angeles, which built its 22-mile Blue Line light-rail service in 1990, went from 19,000 riders a day to more than 75,000 riders a day in 2006.

So it makes sense that the Valley will learn to love its light rail, too.

The Japanese Kinkisharyo trains we're getting have a certain cool factor. They're sleek with lots of glass and can hold four wheelchairs and four bicycles. How PC is that?

Each car seats 66 people but can be packed with 200. Riders will board on stations that in most places will be like islands in the middle of the street. The trains, running the route on two separate east-west tracks, will arrive every five to 10 minutes during rush hour, and every 20 to 30 minutes at other times.

Metro hasn't decided on the hours of service yet, saying only that the trains will operate 18 to 20 hours a day.

Karla Navarrete, a Metro spokeswoman, says people have been asking whether the trains will run late enough to accommodate the state's new 2 a.m. last call at bars, but there are no answers yet.

"That will all really come about as we get closer to opening day," she says.

Businesses will be getting perks. Like the fact that thousands of people will look at their storefronts while riding by on trains every day. That kind of free advertising is hard to beat. And this should mean that new customers will be exploring shops and eateries near light-rail stations.

"The theory is that in the long term, this is going to bring them more business," says John Henry Smith, a business counselor at the Maricopa Community Colleges Small Business Development Center in Phoenix. "It's worked in L.A., Oakland, San Diego and Houston."

In Portland, construction of the Interstate MAX Yellow Line put a few marginal businesses under a few years ago, but resulted in 51 new businesses opening along the line, according to Oregon transportation officials.

The most important benefits of light rail may be the indirect ones. Indeed, light rail is often viewed as a sort of rolling growth-stimulus package, spurring redevelopment of blighted areas and enhancing existing business and residential districts.

"Investment is about more than a new rail system," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta after the feds agreed last year to pay for 42 percent of our $1.4 billion rail line. "It is about a new wave of development that will promote new housing, new retail and new offices."

Studies show that light rail tends to spur development and increase property values. A 2003 report by researchers at the University of North Texas, for example, states that light-rail stations increased residential and office property values 25 percent over similar areas without such stations.

Listening to Mayor Gordon expound on the virtues of light rail, it's almost like he's playing SimCity, the popular computer game in which players build urban environments — and he fully expects to win.

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