Off the Track

Page 3 of 4

So the rail system must provide access to Central yet not detract from the overall appearance of the street.

Miller claims that property owners wanted the system right on Central Avenue to provide better service to their businesses. He told New Times it was his staff who convinced them it would be better just east or west of Central Avenue, running in what he calls a "seam between the commercial and residential district" just behind the office buildings and parking garages.

Miller's explanation sounds logical. And it shows, he adds, how transit planners work hand in hand with property owners, the way it's supposed to be. But that's not the way it really happened, New Times has found.

It was the business leaders along Central who decided this crucial issue; the same business leaders the city has asked to pony up millions for the beautification improvements. "If we put up the money for the [beautification] project, the transit is not going to go up Central Avenue," bluntly says Chris Cole, a major landowner along Central who's active in the Central Avenue Property Owners Association. He says the city had to decide which it wanted: Its "beautiful" Central (which the council likes to think of as Phoenix's Champs Elysees) or mass transit on Central.

Agreement comes from Jim Mahoney of Lincor, which owns considerable property along Central. "I believe in the system, and I believe in the benefits of the system," Mahoney says, but he doesn't see mass transit as compatible with beautification efforts.

Miller argues that the rail system will be aesthetically pleasing and will be barely noticeable. Mahoney responds that he has a hard time finding the beauty in an eighty-foot-wide train station running over Central Avenue that will be as long as a city block.

So what did the Central Avenue property owners do about their concerns? As association consultant Larry Landry puts it, they drew up a contract and marched it down to City Hall: They'll pay for the beautification if there's no overhead train on Central Avenue. In fact, the document--approved unanimously by the Phoenix City Council November 15--specifically states the only way the rail line will go on Central Avenue is if it's below ground.

Although the vote was taken in open session, it was just one item on a crowded agenda and went unnoticed by the public and other neighborhood groups who haven't been told such deals are possible. Even Bonnie Bartak, personal aide to Mayor Terry Goddard, didn't know about the council's deal until informed by New Times. And Miller persists in pretending there was no deal; that the route behind Central was a nifty idea that he had to sell to the high-rise developers. When confronted with the deal, Miller tries to note that nothing's a done deal until approved by the board of the regional authority--elected officials from all the Valley cities and the county. That board can override local council decisions, he notes. But when pressed, he admits that would force the authority to buy expensive right of way from the city instead of getting it for free, and that's not going to happen.

Yes, the authority could construct a below-ground system on Central Avenue, he says, but concedes that isn't economically feasible.

That supposedly leaves two options. But even one of them--constructing the line behind buildings on the east side of Central Avenue--already has been eliminated as impractical, according to Goddard.

So the real map of the transit route on Central isn't a mile-wide corridor; isn't even the two options other maps show. All that's really left is the plan to run the system just west of Central up First and Second Avenues. Those are only partial streets along much of Central. Where they don't exist, houses do. At least until the authority condemns them for the rail line.

Despite Miller's claim that there will be community involvement in locating routes, the only group actually involved in this crucial decision was owners of businesses and vacant land along Central Avenue. The people who own the homes behind those businesses were cut out of the deal making.

Other Valley cities don't seem to have the same problem.
In Tempe, for example, a transportation committee set up by the city council began studying options in late 1987. By last spring it was ready to recommend a specific route: The rail line should cross the Salt River just east of the Mill Avenue bridge and run next to the existing railroad tracks, behind Sun Devil Stadium and south along McAllister Avenue until it reaches Apache Boulevard, where it turns east toward Mesa.

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Howard Fischer