Let the Countdown Begin: Light Rail Inching Toward South Phoenix

The planning and design of the light rail extension to south Phoenix is nearly complete. Valley Metro is soliciting feedback, but there's still a lot we don't know about how it will affect the communities along the six-mile track.EXPAND
The planning and design of the light rail extension to south Phoenix is nearly complete. Valley Metro is soliciting feedback, but there's still a lot we don't know about how it will affect the communities along the six-mile track.
Joseph Flaherty
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Just five years from now, the Valley’s existing light rail system is scheduled to reach south Phoenix. Final elements such as station design and art are being ironed out — not to mention a variety of unknowns regarding how construction, increased traffic, and a business upswing may impact the historically underserved community.

The South Central light rail extension will encompass 11 stations along six miles of Central Avenue, starting from downtown Phoenix and ending at Baseline Road. On Wednesday evening, Valley Metro hosted the first of two community meetings to gather community input on the final phase of the project before they break ground next year.

At the South Mountain Community, posterboards displayed station and trackway design concepts, including various shade devices like canvas overhanging the platform or vertical grilles.

Residents could also view station art concepts from 14 artists, 10 of whom are originally from the community. A few of the designs included butterflies in flight over the platform, or stained glass-style images of the Virgin Mary. 

A long map of the long-awaited rail line was laid out on a row of tables. Residents could get a bird’s eye view of where stations will eventually intersect with cross-streets and neighborhoods. “This is something only engineers can love because there’s a lot of colors, and a lot of arrows, and a lot of lines,” said Scott Smith, Valley Metro’s CEO.

There was no formal Q&A, but around two dozen employees with Valley Metro, the Arizona Department of Transportation, and an engineering firm fielded questions individually. Smith addressed the crowd at the start of the meeting to say that the complex process of extending the light rail feels like “a marathon, a long road trip.” But ultimately, the extension will be worth it, he said, based on what they've experienced throughout the Valley.

“I believe it will elevate this community in ways that we haven't even imagined,” Smith said. "I believe that strongly or else I wouldn't be here. I know we have a lot of different opinions about the value of this."

Clyde Miller, 62, a resident who lives near 11th Street and Baseline Road, is cautiously optimistic. Miller drives or takes the bus to get work downtown, and says he’ll definitely use the South Central extension once it opens. “I’m a big fan of public transportation,” he said.

But there are a lot of unknowns. Miller is concerned about parking on the side streets adjacent to the track, and he can’t imagine how the terminal station on Baseline Road will impact nearby businesses.

“For some reason, a lot of us who live in that area just can’t envision that being at Baseline,” Miller said.

Thanks to a 2016 Phoenix City Council decision, the schedule for the South Central extension was accelerated by 10 years.

And last April, council members approved $50 million in funding for the final design and pre-construction plans. Transportation 2050, a 35-year transportation plan Phoenix voters approved in 2015, provides the road map and funding for the light rail expansion.

Last year, the South Central expansion received federal environmental clearance. After the design is finalized, construction is probably going to begin in early 2019, according to Valley Metro.

Janet Yeow, a transit engineer with firm AECOM, took questions from residents while standing at the rail map. She said some people were trying to find their house on the map; others asked about how the stations would provide shade or impact traffic in the area.

“It’s personal to them, right?” Yeow said. “I’ve had a lot of people who are excited to be able to the train from south Phoenix to the downtown,” she added. 

On February 3, Valley Metro will hold another meeting to show art concepts and introduce some of the 14 artists the agency has selected to design stations. And later this month, the transit authority will open an office on Central Avenue and Roeser Road in south Phoenix for outreach in the historically black and Latino community.

City Councilman Michael Nowakowski, who represents District 7, urged attendees to give their input on any tweaks or changes: “This is your extension into your neighborhoods, into your businesses, and into our community," he said.

“One of the things that we want to make sure is that you get to see it firsthand before we start to break ground and start building it out,” Nowakowski said. “Now’s the time to really voice your opinion.”

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