After countless meetings, millions of dollars and construction-filled streets, the light-rail extension into central Mesa is on track to be completed by late summer of this year. As Arizona’s third largest city, Mesa has high hopes for the economic impact the new transportation will bring to its emerging downtown scene.
The 3.1-mile-long project, which began the design phase in the fall of 2010, was projected to take about 20 months to complete and cost $200 million. Funding came from regional and federal funds, more specifically Proposition 400, passed in 2004, that created a transportation sales tax. The federal funds come through the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts Program, which focuses on “the development of viable, safer, and more livable communities,” according to the FTA website.
Valley Metro has projected that an average of 9,742 weekday riders will utilize the extension once completed, which is an addition of about 5,000 people. This means a huge increase in business opportunities for properties located along the tracks.
During construction, however, businesses and residents have dealt with their own concerns. Widening of roads, installing overhead wire and utilities being installed has made regular access to businesses on Main Street difficult, among noise and traffic congestion. Signs are posted all along the stretch of tracks indicating where each business offers parking access.
The city, alongside Valley Metro and various neighborhood development groups, has worked to create a network of support for all those affected by the project. A community advisory board of business members and residents meets every month to get updates, voice concerns they see and plan events to support their current customers.
Jo Wilson, a board member who represents Benedictine University, sees the light rail as an important asset for future students. Benedictine’s new Mesa campus on Main Street is part of the effort to revitalize downtown.
“The light rail will allow students to get to our campus if they do no have transportation,” she said last month. “It may be a factor, among many others, that students will consider when choosing a university.”
Michael Book, business outreach coordinator, works as the liaison between community members and Valley Metro and oversees the monthly community advisory board meetings.
“They’re impacted directly, so obviously when issues come about, there’s things that they are more focused on because it’s right in front of their business,” Mr. Book said last month. “We had more issues when they were doing utility relocation. I think it’s more frustrating for people because they don’t see the work being done [behind the scenes]… but now they can actually see the track,” he said.
Valley Metro also began the Metro Max Rewards program, which allows participating businesses to offer exclusive savings and discounts to customers who show their rewards card. Apart from the usual restaurants and shopping, residents can even find discounts on things such as medical services and automotive repair.
Another ongoing initiative the city promotes, called Shop on Main St., is focused on urging residents to shop downtown regardless of construction. In March, the event was to feature a giveaway of spring training tickets for the Oakland Athletics, along with gift cards from various businesses.
Virginia Aügero, a resident on the board who lives in the historical district on Third Street, wanted to know more about the project. She had previously served on the committee who selected the art that will be seen at each new light rail platform, as well as art seen in front of the Mesa Arts Center.
“I’ve always been involved in Mesa since we moved from Tucson. As a resident and as an artist, I was very interested… it’s so important to be involved,” she said last month. Ms. Aügero hopes to see an increase in people attending concerts, shows and other cultural events that already take place in downtown. She also mentioned that it will be great for senior citizens like herself, who do not always have access to transportation.
Mesa will now be connected to the rest of the light-rail line, which goes through Tempe and downtown Phoenix. Plans are also in place to extend the light rail in the northwest direction, near the area of Dunlap Avenue and Interstate 17. With a late 2015-early 2016 scheduled opening, this extension is projected to serve 20,000 residents and another 20,000 employees in the area. It had originally been set to open in 2012, but the economic downturn put the project on hold until funds from Prop. 400 were secured.
Editor’s note: Sarah Edwards is a journalism student at the Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and wrote the article as a class assignment.