Home / Home news / Light rail — ‘Lite’: A smaller-scale commuter rail will run right down Mill Avenue. Is the area ready?

Light rail — ‘Lite’: A smaller-scale commuter rail will run right down Mill Avenue. Is the area ready?

A young boy waves as a streetcar passes in Portland, Ore. The system in Portland, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary this August, was used as a model for the system planned to run up and down Mill and Ash avenues in Tempe. (Photo courtesy of Portland Streetcar, Inc.)

A young boy waves as a streetcar passes in Portland, Ore. The system in Portland, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary this August, was used as a model for the system planned to run up and down Mill and Ash avenues in Tempe. (Photo courtesy of Portland Streetcar, Inc.)

More rail, anyone?

During the nearly two-year building process for the original light rail line, several business owners in central Phoenix said they were on the brink of ruin. They blamed street- and foot-traffic disruptions caused by the 21-mile major construction project.

David Wimberley, owner of George & Dragon Restaurant, said his business barely survived.  Central Christian Supply, on Central just north of Osborn, closed after being in business for 35 years. Shelli Walker, who had owned a flower shop near Central and Camelback, said she was forced to move, according to newspaper story.

Since construction on the original line, which runs from northwest Phoenix to west Mesa, finished in late 2008, surviving business and new ones have largely sung the praises of the transportation system. The question is: What will be the effect on downtown Tempe’s foot-traffic-heavy and business-dense Mill Avenue when a similar, but less invasive, transportation project gets under way?

A 2.6-mile modern streetcar system is proposed to loop around downtown Tempe along Mill and Ash avenues, then extend from the Salt River to Southern Avenue and ultimately to Rural Road. The planned line, expected to open in 2016, appears to have caused little of that kind of trepidation.

“There shouldn’t be a problem because there is a big difference between streetcar construction and light rail construction,” says Nancy Hormann, president and executive director of Downtown Tempe Community, whose members passed a resolution endorsing the project.

Like light rail, the modern streetcars — a bit larger than typical city buses — will tap into electricity from overhead lines and travel along rails. Streetcars will make more frequent stops than light rail and will share traffic lanes with cars. The big difference between the systems is the project scale and time requirements for construction.

During a visit to observe construction of a modern streetcar line in Portland, Ore., Hormann says she saw the rails go in at a rate of about three weeks for every three blocks of construction.

“They cut the asphalt for putting in tracks, it’s put in, and then put in the asphalt again,” says Hormann, who adds that sidewalks will be largely unaffected. “It’s not going to shut downtown and not be a huge construction zone.”

A timeline on the Tempe city website, tempe.gov, estimates three years for the construction phase of the project. Construction would begin in mid-2013 with an opening in mid-2016.

Tempe City Councilwoman Shana Ellis chairs a Community Working Group of merchants and business owners and other stakeholders that is looking at financing options and environmental impacts of the proposed line.

Ellis also says that the streetcar line construction will be far less of an imposition on activity in the well-known Mill Avenue retail, eatery and entertainment district than light rail construction was in Tempe several years ago.

“The street will still be drivable in the evenings,” Ellis says. “There’ll be no moving of utilities and that type of thing.”

After a three-year study by Valley Metro Rail, a proposal went before the Tempe City Council in November, which council members approved. Plans call for federal grants to pay about three-quarters of the project’s cost, with the remainder covered by money from Proposition 400, a half-cent transportation sales tax first approved by Maricopa County voters in 1985.  Ellis says the city will pay the estimated $3.1 million annual cost of operations, nearly $1 million of which would be paid for by fares.

Other sources of revenue to be explored include selling advertising space on streetcars and other public transit vehicles, increasing parking meter fees and stepping up parking enforcement.

Tempe has applied for the federal construction money, and will not build the line without it, Ellis says. The line is part of

57 miles of high-capacity transit corridors identified by the Maricopa Association of Governments, according to Tempe’s city website.

Despite the reduced disruption of business, Tempe will be creating a public-private partnership with local credit unions to provide short-term loans to help businesses get through the construction period, Miller says.

Shannon Randle has managed Churchill’s Fine Cigars at 640 S. Mill Ave. for 1 ½ years after working at some of the local chain’s other locations. He says while he is glad the modern streetcar line will be less complicated than the light rail to build, he still expects some loss of business during its construction.

“If you’re putting in rail, no matter how light the effort is, whatever construction you do it affects about 10 to 20 percent of your business,” Randle says. “There’s just too much competition with Scottsdale and Tempe Marketplace.”

He says the modern streetcar system could be beneficial to Churchill’s, depending on where the stops are. Too far north or south of his location won’t help, he says.

Angel Lopez, kitchen manager at Restaurant Mexico, 423 S. Mill Ave.,  has been an employee at the restaurant for 23 years, long enough to have worked at the restaurant’s four different locations in the neighborhood since the mid-1980s. The moves were prompted by redevelopment, but the popular restaurant has survived all of them.

Lopez isn’t too worried if a streetcar line is built a few feet outside his eatery’s front door. “Just finish it fast,” he says.

Jyme Sue McLaren of the Tempe city Transportation Department says in addition to helping those visiting the Mill Avenue district as consumers, the streetcar line should be an aid to redevelopment of residential property nearby, including single-family homes.

Hormann, of Downtown Tempe Community, who is also a member of the Community Working Group Ellis chairs, says in 2011 its members will be working on setting the precise route and where the stops — which she likened to “overgrown bus stops” — and curb cuts will go.

“We’re in planning for next three years, figuring out construction mitigation, which is what we’re doing to impact our businesses the least possible,” Hormann said.

The Tempe Chamber of Commerce has advocated addressing the city’s public transportation challenges through several avenues “for a couple of decades,” says Mary Ann Miller, chamber president and CEO. She says Tempe needs to be served by a combination of bus routes, light rail lines and modern streetcars.

“Tempe is surrounded by freeways,” Miller says. “And short of paving everything between Loop 202 and U.S. 60, there’s no way to really increase the transportation capabilities for Tempe residents for those going through the city.”

Public input

Meetings of the Community Working Group on the Tempe Modern Streetcar Line are held at 5 p.m. on the fourth Monday of each month in the Don Cassano Community Room, 200 E. Fifth St., Tempe.

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