South Phoenix Light Rail Expansion Raises Concerns From Community Members
LAUREN GILGER: The south Phoenix light rail extension has become a lightning rod for members of the south Phoenix community — for anti pro transportation activists alike and at the Phoenix City Council. For months, some south Phoenix residents and business owners have demanded more details about the project and asked for changes, or in some cases they've told the City Council that they don't want to see the train come down Central Avenue in south Phoenix at all. In the past few weeks, the council and Valley Metro have held community meetings on the extension, facilitated by an independent consulting firm. The firm estimates an average attendance of 80 community members across these meetings with more than 450 questions answered. One person in attendance was Jacqueline Carrizosa, who owns Oasis Raspado, an ice cream shop along Central Avenue. The light rail would run past the shop's front door.
JACQUELIN CARRIZOSA: This construction is very, very chaotic. We're very small and we're trying to survive. We have employees, we have families, and we have everything to pay for.
GILGER: Carrizosa says she doesn't think most people will think it's worth fighting through construction to get to her ice cream shop because it's not a good or service that they absolutely need. She doesn't want the train to come south but she feels that those making the decision have already made up their minds and the meetings won't change that. Valley Metro on the other hand says its staff was able to have many conversations and address concerns at the meetings. And CEO Scott Smith says, he hopes the project will be ready to move forward soon. Valley Metro was supposed to begin the engineering phase of this project earlier this summer — and along with pressure from Washington over its funding and uncertainty here at the city level — Smith says he's still an unapologetic proponent of the project and believes in the opportunity that it will bring to the area. I sat down with Smith at his offices yesterday to talk more about it, and the concerns he's heard from the people at those community meetings in the last several weeks.
SCOTT SMITH: There's really three camps that come to these meetings. There are those who are opposed to light rail, and they have decided where they're going to stand. They're those that support light rail, and they've decided — and those two groups turned out in force. And then there's the group in the middle, and the group in the middle were those who you know we want to support it or we maybe don't but we want information. And that's who the meetings were designed to connect with. And I felt very good that we were able to connect with that group of people — to present them information on who specifically two-lane four-lane in a way that they could then decide what was most important for them.
GILGER: So the two-lanes versus four-lane controversy right — began from these businesses along Central Avenue that said if you reduce traffic to two lanes here we're going to lose a lot of our business. So tell me, the city council under pressure sort of agreed to review that plan. What did you find?
SMITH: Well actually the two-lane four-lane began 5 years ago. I guess that's one of the frustrating things for us is, that if you go back and look at the minutes of the public outreach that was conducted in 2013, we had the same discussions. What we found out, and there were many surprises, we went in with no preconceived notion, the number one surprise was that you actually can physically fit four lanes along most of the route. I was personally surprised by that. I didn't think that was going to be possible because you have to fit the four lanes within what we called the environmental envelope, and that's put four lanes in a way that you didn't have to tear buildings down. Now that the tradeoff for that is what we found is that even though you have four lanes, that the traffic actually gets worse. And the reason for that is because at our secondary intersections, we don't have enough lanes to maintain a dedicated traffic signal controlled left turn. When you do that, traffic tends to slow down and stop quite a bit. As a matter of fact, it's significant. We found through professional traffic engineers doing simulations, that the time to go from Broadway to Baseline was increased by almost 40 percent with a four-lane configuration versus a two-lane.
So now there is a contingent of people who say we don't want a light rail at all, and they've formed a political action committee and want to send this issue back to voters. It has been voted on before obviously. What's your response to that, and that effort in general?
Well, people always have the ability in Arizona — in Phoenix to take their grievances to the voters, and I don't agree with them. I'm an unapologetic supporter of this project. Not even what it does for south Phoenix, which I think is incredible, but what it does for the entire region. This is not live on an island. This is a gateway and it opens up opportunities to those in south Phoenix, so I understand when people don't like light rail. Believe me, I hear about it a lot. And there are some valid reasons for people not to like light rail. But there's a lot of misinformation going around, and I think a lot of people who have moved to that I don't like light rail, they have legitimate fears such as if you put light rail in my business is going to be gone immediately. That has just, that has not been our experience. Go out to Gilbert Road in Mesa where we have a light rail construction. It's not happening there. It hasn't happened in previous. You can get stories anecdotally. But we found that if they'll work with us with our business assistance we can get through construction and we can set them up to where they can succeed. Businesses go out of business and construction is tough and it does put strains. I'm not going to sugarcoat it. It puts big strains on businesses. And what we found though was that, strong businesses survive and succeed and weak businesses may not. And I don't take that lightly, I just say that's part of the natural process. But what we have seen for example 19th Avenue, is that while you can show me one two maybe five situations where businesses are no longer there — and you can attribute it to light rail I don't know if that's the case or not — what we've seen is the overall economic activity as judged by sales tax receipts on 19th Avenue is up substantially since light rail came in. And that's been our general story, and our general experience from across the system is that economic activity has improved.
GILGER: You can understand that fear though — right? From those business owners like you said — strong businesses will survive but weak businesses won't. I mean it's like you're putting them in a crucible.
SMITH: No you know I understand it. Believe me, when I was a builder, I opened a subdivision and about literally two three weeks after I opened it the city decided to completely tear up the road in front of me. And it almost it almost put me under. Believe me I've been there. I know the fear. I've experienced it. I'm not discounting their fears. What I am saying though is that look at what the experience has been of others. Light Rail in and of itself does not make businesses more successful or less. A successful business will be successful in spite of the challenges. And yes, there are unsuccessful businesses that may or may not well go out. I don't want appear unfeeling. But it's also interesting that when we put in a sewer line and when we put in a freeway, we don't seem to have the same discussion. One of the differences is light rail is a lightning rod.
GILGER: So the other question then is the Washington side of this right. So is the project at risk anyway — kind of as a result of some of this unrest and uncertainty surrounding the project right now — the Federal Transit Administration, which is pitching in a lot of the money has expressed some concern here. Where does that stand?
SMITH: Washington is a problem. We really have a two front problem issue, the politics on both sides. There's no doubt that that that even if we do everything right by the FDA that the funding is certainly not assured, and they will tell you that part of that is because the administration and Congress seemed to be completely opposite ends of this funding it. The administration has made no bones of their desire to eliminate this grant program that will help fund well over $600 million of this project. Congress on the other hand has gone the other way, and they've increased funding for the program. And so right now, either sort of a tug of war between the administration and Congress. We are operating under the fast act, and Congress has said you will spend the money we appropriate so for the time being it appears that projects will get funded — how they will get funded is up in the air.
GILGER: So this light rail issue like you said is a lightning rod it's brought up a lot of tensions and fears in the south Phoenix community, which has been I would say traditionally underserved. I wonder what you think about those concerns in general and the people who would sort of attach your face to it and say listen you're the guy coming into my neighborhood and ruining it?
SMITH: Well, I am the guy coming to neighbor. I didn't set this policy. I didn't do it. I'm going to give the credit to others because we're not ruining their neighborhood. You get one chance to have a billion dollars invested in your neighborhood. I'm a little surprised that people would not see how if you're in south Phoenix — and there's no doubt that area of town has been under served — I did a lot of business down there for many years I know the community well — they've been ignored they've been forgotten. They have been passed over. In fact I give Mayor Stanton and Congressman Pastor credit for advancing this because they said you know what we're tired of waiting. It's time to give south Phoenix its due. And they worked very hard with a lot of local leaders to make this get us to the point that we are. So if they're going to blame me for helping to bring a billion plus dollars in new investment, for completely rebuilding Central Avenue, for adding a mode of transportation that literally will open up the world to those residents down there — because this is not just a short extension. Remember this now creates and becomes part of a 30-plus-mile system. Light rail investment as any investment is a magnet for new private investment that will do nothing but benefit south Phoenix. You want me to apologize for that? I'll be more than happy to take the blame. But I think that others deserve a lot of credit including members of the community, who for decades and certainly the last five to 10 years, have spent a lot of time energy and effort to see the south Phoenix is not forgotten.
GILGER: Valley Metro CEO Scott Smith, thank you so much.
SMITH: Thank you.