The neighborhood street at Sycamore and Pepper Place becomes a basketball court many afternoons: An alarming use, some say, of a road that will crowd with traffic when the largest park-and-ride lot along the Valley's light-rail line opens in late December.
Kids used to their west Mesa neighborhood being quiet more than a decade after the closure of Tri-City Mall have become accustomed to playing in the streets, even on the hottest of July days. One crowd often pulls a basketball net into the street, while others ride bikes or hang out with friends.
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Some worry that the light rail's final stop in the East Valley will cause precarious situations for the neighborhood, and for an elementary school that abuts the park-and-ride lot at the old mall site near Dobson Road and Main Street.
Brenda Gomez's family is thinking about moving to what they consider a safer location, the 14-year-old said.
"People along the street are frightened for child safety," she said. "Pretty much your front yard is going to be gone."
Marta Campos, whose home, surrounded by a white-picket fence, is directly across the street from the park-and-ride lot, said she'll watch more closely as her son walks to Webster Elementary School.
"There'll just be a lot of traffic here," she said.
But Valley Metro is working closely with the Mesa Unified School District to reach out to families whose children attend area schools, and teach awareness and safety before the light rail begins operation in December. Community meetings are planned for the fall.
Officials with Mesa and Valley Metro acknowledge that if they get the 26,000 daily riders predicted Valleywide, then traffic will increase at the 802-space Mesa lot at the end of the line, which is the largest along the 19.7-mile system. Valley Metro estimates 20 percent of the light-rail riders will catch the train at the Mesa stop.
However, Mike James, Mesa's deputy transportation director, said the area is designed for mall traffic, and can handle any additional cars not driving there now. Valley Metro spokeswoman Hillary Foose added that traffic is expected to come in bursts to catch the light rail, with the peaks expected during morning and afternoon rush hours. That's the pattern with current buses, which do not run as frequently as the light rail will, stopping every 10 minutes for much of the day. The light rail will operate between 4 a.m. and midnight, with fewer trains running at early and late hours.
Chuck Berger, the new principal at Webster Elementary, said he is concerned about safety issues, but is confident they can be overcome.
"I think having the light rail there is going to be a really neat thing," Berger said. "It's a great opportunity to be able to connect kids with the environmental implications."
Some residents, like Bonnie Craig, said their concerns go beyond traffic safety. Craig, who has lived in the neighborhood for decades, said she believes the only benefit to the area residents will be a quick ride to sports games in downtown Phoenix. That might bring too much urban life to what she says is generally a safe and quiet family community, she said.
"I think what it's going to bring is a bunch of transients," she said. "I think it's going to bring a lot of bad people. I wouldn't want it any farther than it is."
To ensure safety in the neighborhood and at the parking lot, which the city will operate, security guards and cameras will be working on site 24 hours a day, James said.
The Mesa leg of light rail is estimated to cost about $69.2 million to construct, including all costs - just a small segment of the $1.4 billion total project that will span 19.7 miles. A federal transportation grant program and a countywide half-cent sales tax approved by voters will pay for most of the light-rail construction.
The city's contribution toward construction of its 0.96-mile section is $20.5 million from sales taxes.
The park-and-ride lot itself will cost $4 million to build.
Operations of the light rail will cost Mesa $741,670 during its first six months. The city will spend an additional $36,000 from December to June to pay for security and maintenance at the parking lot.
City officials say light rail will help revitalize the west Mesa community, which has lost many of its businesses. Officials even say it could increase area home values, a result seen when light rail was built elsewhere.
"Having it just in a mile, there will be real effects as far as properties along the route that could now be open for redevelopment," said Mayor Scott Smith. "People will start thinking differently about the potential in the whole area."
Councilman Dave Richins, a longtime light-rail advocate, said he's heard people talk about "building a lifestyle around transit," partly due to the increasing cost of gas. People could live and work along the rail line, he said, and improve businesses already there.
In Phoenix and Tempe, light rail has been credited with helping to attract $6 billion in residential and business projects, Foose of Valley Metro said.
Mesa will only get about a mile of light-rail track largely because the city could not determine in time what route it should take through the downtown, said the city's transportation deputy James. The city is continuing to study whether to extend the route, using assistance from the countywide sales tax. The extension could take the light rail to a final stop just east of Mesa Drive. The study also will research whether the route should go along First Avenue or First Street through the downtown area, if it is extended at all.
James said light rail is coming at a key time for Mesa, and not only because of gas prices, which are causing the number of residents who are riding the buses to soar.
The new funds from the countywide sales tax will help the city replace its own dwindling money for public transportation, he said. In the next 20 years, the taxes will pay for at least a dozen bus lines in Mesa.
In the short term, that's caused some confusion because as the city joins in funding the light-rail project, it has had to debate a shortage of funding for its regular bus lines. The city recently narrowly avoided having to cut its Gilbert Road bus route after learning the state was going to continue funding local transportation. The city in February cut Saturday bus service from 30-minute intervals to hourly intervals in an effort to save an estimated $466,468 and help balance the budget.
EXTENDING LIGHT RAIL
The city is banking on a faster bus service known as Bus Rapid Transit, which will also begin operation in December, to make Mesa's mile of light rail more accessible to commuters citywide. The rapid transit route will run along Main Street from the last rail stop to Power Road, where it turns south and ends at Superstition Springs Center. The buses will stop in fewer places, thereby cutting travel time.
James said the buses are expected to take about 35 minutes to get from Superstition Springs to the Sycamore stop - about 15 minutes faster than a regular bus, and then it could take another 35 minutes to get to downtown Phoenix on the light rail.
The new, faster bus service will also be an alternative to existing express routes that take the freeways, he said. Buses in general have become more crowded in Mesa since 2005. Between 2005 and 2007, buses in Mesa received almost 300,000 additional riders, ending the 2007 calendar year with a total 3.3 million riders in Mesa alone.
The countywide sales tax will begin to alleviate that sharp increase in ridership on Monday as the first three buses it will fund begin operating - including the first express bus to run along Mesa's leg of the now-completed Loop 202 Red Mountain Freeway.
On Monday, the countywide tax will begin paying for operations of bus routes on Dobson Road and Southern Avenue. The Dobson route will extend from the Riverview mall at Loop 202 through Chandler to Ocotillo Road. The new express route, No. 535, will have stops along Loop 202 at Power and Gilbert roads. It will run to downtown Phoenix and the state Capitol.
"This is a great connection, not just for Mesa, but for Chandler residents to come up and get on the light rail when it starts in six months," James said.
In an effort to use the faster bus line as an extension of light rail, the city is looking to build at least one other park-and-ride lot near Country Club Drive and U.S. 60 along existing routes to help residents reach the light-rail stop at Sycamore.
Though some residents are eager for any improvements in transportation, others are skeptical that just one mile of light rail will make much difference, despite the city's plans to integrate and improve services to the rail.
"Everything is spread out. Everybody drives," said resident Lee Darling, who lives close to the light rail in Mesa, but says he won't take it. "What they needed to do was build more freeways 20 years ago. I'm not leaving my car that I've had for 20 years anywhere but where I work."