Light rail's roll through the EV marks a decade

December 23, 2018
East Valley Tribune
Gary Nelson

It was so cold that Grand Funk Railroad almost froze in its tracks.

The classic rock band’s guitar-pickers had trouble getting their fingers to work on that frigid day in late December 2008 when the East Valley helped inaugurate the region’s light-rail line.

But the sharp weather that day was nothing compared with the political headwinds that blew in the face of the system now celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Those winds, in fact, have never stopped, even as the system continues to expand and as billions of dollars in urban development projects sprout next to the tracks.

Of all the leaders who had a share in bringing the system to life, Scott Smith is perhaps best-positioned to opine on what those 10 years have wrought.

As mayor of Mesa, he sat gleefully at the controls when a light-rail train made the first crossing from Tempe into Mesa on a test run in the summer of 2008. Months later, he froze his caboose with the rest of the crowd as Grand Funk chugged through its tunes at Mesa’s Sycamore station on Dec. 27, 2008.

And now, as CEO of Valley Metro, he’s actually in charge of the whole 26-mile system.

Smith speaks of his job with a mixture of exasperation and pride. More about that after a brief excursion into history.

The rail system, a dream of Valley transportation planners for decades, came to life through a series of city council decisions and public votes beginning in the mid-1990s. A crucial moment arrived in 2004, when Maricopa County voters were asked to approve Proposition 400, a half-cent sales tax for a 20-year transportation program that included light rail.

Rail opponents chose that moment to try to kill it.

First, Republicans in the Legislature tried to split up the transportation package in an effort to isolate and throttle the rail system. Valley mayors, including Mesa’s Keno Hawker and Tempe’s Neil Giuliano, cried foul – and the Prop 400 package remained intact.

There also was a $1 million ad campaign attacking Proposition 400, largely because it included rail. But voters approved the proposal by a 57-43 percent margin.

Even after that vote, rail opponents pressed their case. A Mesa group called No Bucks for Light Rail tried to force a 2006 election on the issue, but failed.

Even now, light rail is not a political slam-dunk across the Valley.

Scottsdale’s City Council voted in 2016 to kill plans for light rail on the city’s south end. And in Phoenix, rail opponents are seeking a public vote on a council-approved rail extension southward on Central Avenue to Baseline Road.

A Phoenix political committee, called “Building a Better Phoenix,” submitted last month 40,000 signatures to ask voters to end light rail expansion in the city and instead divert the money to other transportation improvements, like buses and road repairs.

Leading the charge from Phoenix City Hall is Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who maintains that the city can’t afford light rail and that it would kill the business community in South Phoenix.

 The initiative needs about 20,000 verified signatures to qualify for the ballot in either the May or August 2019 elections, according to a city spokesman. The timing will depend on how long it takes city staff and then City Council to verify them.

That’s where Smith’s exasperation comes in.

“The entire future of a very big and successful program … is at risk” because of political chaos, Smith said. “With this initiative that that group has filed (in Phoenix), we are the only city ever to backtrack on light rail. Most everybody else, once they put it in, their expansion plans have been actually accelerated.”

But harking back to opening day 10 years ago, Smith said history has vindicated the rail system.

“There was a sense of, we’ve arrived,” Smith said. “We’ve made the kind of investment that is a game-changer, the kind of investment that be noticed not only here but nationwide. It will place Phoenix up there among the cities that are recognized as cities of the 21st century. And I think we’ve seen that play out.”

As it happened, the system began operating amid the deepening despair of the Great Recession – an economic calamity that killed several highly touted East Valley real estate projects.

Investment along the rail line lagged as a result. But now Valley Metro can point to $11 billion in new projects within walking distance of the line, ranging from housing for low-income seniors to burgeoning college campuses.

Smith said he often crosses swords with people who contend those developments would have happened in any event.

Pointing to downtown Mesa as an example, he noted that not one new housing construction permit was issued in the area between the mid-1980s and 2013, when a complex for seniors opened on First Avenue. Developers said at the time that the advent of light rail spurred their decision to build.

While admitting that not all of these projects can be directly attributed to light rail, Smith said it’s clear the system revived vast swaths of once-moribund urban land.

“People consciously made decisions to invest where they would not have invested,” said Smith, who himself is a former real estate developer. “It seems like an awfully unusual coincidence that in December 2008 all of a sudden multiple developers decided to start shifting their investment to a route that had for decades been ignored. I don’t think there’s any doubt that light rail was the catalyst.”

Thus, he said, light rail has brought people into older inner-city areas and mitigated some effects of the much-bewailed suburban sprawl that has characterized Valley development for decades.

As for the future, Smith said it seems likely the system will keep growing.

Valley Metro and Mesa are looking into a rail line southward on Dobson Road to Southern Avenue, and then east through the Fiesta District to as far as Country Club Drive.

“I could see something in the Fiesta District within the next 10, 15 years,” Smith said.

From Southern and Country Club, the line could head southward into Chandler, but Smith said that probably won’t happen for decades, if ever.

Another plan under serious consideration would extend Tempe’s downtown streetcar line to Dobson Road along Rio Salado Parkway, and then southward on Dobson to connect with light rail at Main Street.

Smith said such a route would serve 40,000 to 50,000 people who might eventually be working in an innovation district being planned by Arizona State University on property currently occupied by Karsten Golf Course.

Farther east, Smith said no studies are underway to carry light rail beyond Gilbert Road. That will be the eastern terminus of the rail extension that will begin hauling passengers next spring.

In sum, Smith said, rail will be an essential transit component as the metro area adds another million people in the coming 15 years.

“We’re going to have to handle the challenge of moving large numbers of people longer distances, and there’s no more efficient or effective way to move a lot of people those distances than rail and express bus,” Smith said.

He added, “Public transportation is going to be around for a long time. I just hope that our political leadership continues to invest in it.”