When it comes to light rail, one of the biggest challenges Valley Metro has in the Phoenix Valley is that it can’t build it fast enough. There are two projects currently under construction in north-central Phoenix and in Mesa. “We’ve got plans to even extend further on both ends of the line,” Valley Metro CEO Stephen Banta said.
Underway is a an extension through Mesa and city of Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, also the incoming president of the United States Conference of Mayors, said he sees the option of light rail creates a lot of economic opportunities. The city even repurposed federal highway monies to do the extension.
Route Plan Development
When Smith came into office, there were some details of the extension that hadn’t been decided so the city needed to choose whether to go through downtown or to skirt the downtown.
“That was a huge policy issue for Mesa because with that we defined what we expected our development to do and that was a big debate,” Smith said. “The question is if you’re going right down Main Street, which already has a median and four lanes and parking on either side, you are changing the manner of our downtown. We couldn’t say no, we’re not.”
Mesa went with the decision to go through downtown because without that change they believed the downtown would remain forever in a holding pattern. Smith said, “We did not believe we could really create anything great with what we already had without making this major change.” He continued, “I’ve had downtown members say, ‘You’re going to change downtown,’ and I’ve said, ‘Yeah, we are. Forever. And you’re going to love it; it’s going to be great.’”
Smith described downtown Mesa as “Main Street USA.” It’s a mile of shops and their downtown rush hour is a lot of midday riders. He said a lot of them are seniors going to places they wouldn’t drive. Downtown is a destination. It also has one of the most visited spots in the state that was man-made: the Mesa Arizona Temple. The Easter pageant draws more than 150,000 people over nine or 10 nights.
Smith explained how oftentimes the economic development is to build a station and plant TOD around it while what they’re looking to do in Mesa, an economically compact area, is to redefine it without rebuilding it.
“The extension was purely us. Not a regional plan,” Smith explained. “We did not have funding identified for it but we believed the long-term future of light rail is to extend beyond downtown and to eventually … get out to Phoenix-Mesa [Gateway] Airport, which is another 15 miles out there.”
Using Road Money on Rail
As with most Western communities, light rail is extremely controversial. Phoenix had decided it was going to do something with or without the region. Smith said, “It obviously made more sense to do it with the region and actually finish it because they didn’t know if their tax would really build what was needed to be built.” He continued, “So they included a transit component inside the Prop 400 but most of it was freeway and regional cities.”
He explained there was also a concept called regional equity, a regional plan to make sure that communities weren’t locked out. It’s not dollar for dollar he said, but you give in and they get projects that come back to you so the citizens are getting their money’s worth out of it. He said, “That was important to get passed.
“There also had to be the confidence that you did not take freeway money … because people would have said this is a bait-and-switch.” There were firewalls set up in place to prevent that.
Mesa finished its freeway and there were a lot of significant street programs and in the seven to eight years since they had passed that, the street program already has changed. “We actually have streets that no longer need to be built because development came along and the developers widened streets, widened intersections,” said Smith.