For Karen Nelson, light rail means finally getting from Mesa to downtown Phoenix for a Moody Blues concert.
For David Johnson, it means fear that he'll lose the Tempe flower shop his family started in 1927.
For David Searcey, it means very little. He lives and works close to the planned line but he's staying behind the wheel of a $26,000 Chevy Silverado, a lowrider with 20-inch wheels and a black paint job that he loves to show off.
For most everybody along its route, light rail means change. It will run through the hearts of Tempe and Mesa to tie the East Valley to the nation's fifth-largest city. The line is three miles from Scottsdale and is designed for a future fork to that city's downtown.
And as the system approaches groundbreaking next summer, its impact is increasingly debated by commuters, businesses in its path and politicians who will decide whether the 20-mile system is worth $1.18 billion.
For the optimists, it means becoming a more cosmopolitan area where a trendy rail line whisks passengers to museums, athletic events, conventions, shops and loft housing.
It represents the most significant effort in decades to wean society from pollutant-spewing cars that spawn sprawl and suburbia. It means planning for the 5 million people expected to live here by 2020. Park-and-Ride lots and bus routes would tie into the line, so it could serve a wide swath of the East Valley.
For the skeptics, it's a $50-million-a-mile pork project that ignores the 99 percent of Valley residents who won't use it for daily commuting. It's money that should be spent to expand sparse bus service or crowded freeways. It's a fancy trolley that will go only 21 mph and tie up traffic.
Michael Monti can see both sides from his Monti's la Casa Vieja restaurant in downtown Tempe.
"If I didn't own a business next to it I'd have to take potshots," Monti said.
But he's compelled to add: "I can't wait to take it to downtown Phoenix."
He'll have a chance in December 2006 if plans stay on track.
Six miles of rail will cut through the East Valley, reaching to Main Street near Longmore in Mesa.
From there, riders will pay as much as bus fare ($1.60 today) to take a train powered by overhead electrical lines into Tempe and Phoenix. The rail line will run down the middle of Main Street, which becomes Apache Boulevard in Tempe, then turn north toward downtown Tempe on Terrace Avenue. The train will cross Town Lake and run on Washington Street to downtown Phoenix.
Work will begin this fall in the East Valley with utility relocation. Intermittent projects will stretch into 2006. Rail will go between the downtowns of Tempe and Phoenix in December 2006, and in August 2007 a segment will open to someplace between Dobson Road and Longmore. Mesa is negotiating for stops at either the Tri-City Pavilions or the East Valley Institute of Technology.
The rail plan began in the late 1990s, the idea of Valley leaders who lamented sprawl, congestion and the limits of the freeway system. They envisioned a light-rail system to link the Valley's largest employers, entertainment hot spots and cultural amenities.
The track also will run through industrial areas known more for boarded-up buildings and crime than anything. The rail, it is hoped, will encourage trendy lofts and hip businesses to line this new transit corridor.
Leaders hope the line creates a new center of gravity in the Valley that can get people to give up cars and live in a dense urban setting.
"It's a part of our evolution, to hopefully evolve into one of the greatest cities not just in the nation, but in the world," Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano said. "When you think of the greatest cities of the world — Paris, Rome, New York, Chicago, Buenos Aires — they all have the ability to provide a high quality of life in an urban environment where people can get around."
CATCHING THE TRAIN
The rail's transportation promises and limitations can be found inside Arizona's tallest building, the 40-story Bank One Center on Phoenix's Central Avenue.
The line runs along the building, where Mesa residents Karen Nelson and David Searcey work and could use rail for most of their trip to work. Only one will use it.
Nelson gave up driving to work after a month of traffic jams and three near-collisions on the freeway. She takes an express bus from her home near Alma School Road and U.S. 60, but the bus is so old that the air conditioning quits at freeway speeds. The bus breaks down often on the freeway, she said.
Nelson wants to use rail, especially on weekends for concerts. She rattles off what she's missed that she might otherwise have seen with convenient transportation: Stevie Nicks, Dr. Phil, the Blue River Band, the Dixie Chicks and Michelle Branch.
"The Moody Blues were here and I wanted to see them so bad but I just couldn't work myself up to deal with the traffic," Nelson said. "But if I knew I could take the train, that would open up a whole new world to me, a nightlife that I wouldn't have had before."
Searcey lives near Country Club Drive and Guadalupe Road in Mesa but will keep driving 50 miles round trip five days a week. He needs the hectic freeway drive in his Chevy truck to wake up in the morning. And he likes the idea of having his truck for early meetings, evening class at Arizona State University and frequent nights out with friends.
Plus, he's not keeping his truck at home after spending $6,000 for custom features.
"For people who identify with their vehicle and live with it — people like me — we don't pay attention to it," he said of the light rail.
Hope and fear lie along the path.
Along Apache Boulevard, the line promises to bring life along a six-lane road where it's considered progress to turn weather-beaten motels and trailer parks into dusty lots.
One of the boulevard's oldest businesses has survived the decay, but Watson Flower Shop owner David Johnson fears he'll close before service begins.
The 53-year-old's concerns lie in the street that comes up to his adobe building. There, four file-folder-size patches of new black asphalt cover where workers spent three days looking for utilities under the future track.
The work blocked two lanes of traffic — and 30 percent of Johnson's business. Rail construction will mean more than two years of intermittent work, a disruption that Johnson said will probably sink a business Johnson's grandmother began in 1927.
Johnson is still paying two mortgages he took on his business when Loop 101 construction hurt business a decade ago.
"There were just too many construction headaches, and people chose to buy their flowers elsewhere," he said.
Johnson won't leave his property, a place where he's lived most of his life in houses scattered behind the business. He said he plans to stay open by opening satellite locations in other cities.
Rail supporters agreed the system will create some losers.
"If a business can't survive two months of down time, then you've got to question whether they're really a viable business to begin with," said Phil Amorosi, a Tempe activist who supports the line. "Some businesses aren't going to survive."
The city will help businesses by working in small areas so workers can finish in an area quickly, said Amorosi, chairman of the Apache Boulevard Project Area Development Committee. Also, it will help promote businesses and put up signs to remind drivers that shops are open.
Tempe must brace for the disruption because the alternative is worse, Amorosi said. As many as half the properties along Apache were boarded up or torn down at one point, he said.
"The way Apache Boulevard is now, it's not working," Amorosi said.
PICKING UP SPEED
Light rail is supposed to make Apache work again. Communities with rail have seen property values rise along the lines, often by 10 percent or so near stations. A study by the Urban Land Institute predicts high interest in new housing along the line. The area already is the densest populated areas in Arizona and the bus line on Apache is East Valley's most used bus line — factors that should help ridership.
If the area attracts more residents, planners expect grocers, cafes, dry cleaners, shoe stores and other businesses will follow. City leaders hope Apache residents will drive less — or not at all — because rail will bring them to shops, work and nightlife.
But businesses fear the rail will punish drivers.
The rail will replace a lane of traffic in each direction and drivers can only turn left across the rail at signalized intersections. Business owner John Toliver sees too much disruption. The owner of Toliver's Carpet One thinks the system's proponents are more interested in the development prospects than in transportation.
He points out the rail goes through some of the Valley's most blighted areas and suspects cities care more about redevelopment than transportation.
"It's being used more to create economic development in an area," Toliver said.
EXTENDING THE LINE
Those who will decide the future of rail in the East Valley are cautious. Mesa will spend $25 million for its mile of rail, but Mayor Keno Hawker said the city must see if the system works before extending it.
Mesa has studied a line to its downtown. Likewise, Tempe has looked at a segment on the north side of Town Lake that could turn north on Scottsdale Road.
Scottsdale has identified Scottsdale Road as a mass transit corridor, but Mayor Mary Manross said it's too early to know if light rail will work in Scottsdale. Improved bus service might work best in Scottsdale, Manross said. City leaders won't know the best option until seeing how the rail line actually works after a couple years of service, she said.
So far only Phoenix has approved an extension, from Spectrum Mall to Metro Center. Glendale's also looking to tie into the west Phoenix line.
Mesa's mayor said rail could breath new life into Main Street and downtown Mesa. Hawker would prefer an elevated rail in Mesa because he's concerned the street-level track will disrupt traffic. And he's worried about the cost. An extension to Power Road would cost $1 billion — and it still wouldn't reach the city's eastern edge or a major destination such as Williams Gateway Airport.
"It will be a while, I think, before very many miles of light rail are built here," Hawker said.