Rail extension planned for Mesa's Main Street - East Valley Tribune: News

Rail extension planned for Mesa's Main Street

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Posted: Thursday, March 26, 2009 8:44 am | Updated: 2:55 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Mesa is in line to get a light-rail ride into downtown. Now it's up to the City Council to hop on.

Interactive: Light-rail users' guide

A two-year Metro study required to seek federal funds for extending mass transit east from the Sycamore Transit Center concludes that light rail should run down Main Street to Mesa Drive - through the heart of downtown.



Mesa is in line to get a light-rail ride into downtown. Now it's up to the City Council to hop on.

A two-year Metro study required to seek federal funds for extending mass transit east from the Sycamore Transit Center concludes that light rail should run down Main Street to Mesa Drive - through the heart of downtown.

Click on the graphic to see a larger version.

Light rail extending down Main Street in Mesa (Tribune)

The 2.7-mile extension would have four rail stations and a park-and-ride lot. Mesa wouldn't pay a dime for the capital costs associated with the project.

Money would come from federal transit dollars and the 2004 voter-approved Proposition 400 half-cent sales tax revenue.

The extension is estimated to cost up to $184 million, $10 million under Metro's budgeted cost for the project. Mesa would only have to pay if construction costs exceed the budget. Construction is targeted to begin May 2012 and end late 2014. Trains would be running in 2015.

Thursday marked the first time the City Council heard the recommendation details. A council decision is expected May 18.

"The critical action is the Mesa council," Metro's Corridor Planning Manager Marc Soronson said.

Following that, the Metro board and the Maricopa Association of Governments have to sign off on the plan and apply for federal funding from the Federal Transit Administration.

The council didn't express major concerns Thursday. Council members, in fact, wanted more.

"Why aren't we viewing Power Road and further east as a high-capacity transit corridor now?" Councilman Dave Richins asked.

The Mesa segment has proven a success already, with the Sycamore station the busiest park-and-ride lot, notching up 11 percent of Metro's total boardings. Travel forecasting estimates show plenty of demand at Sycamore from the east side, Soronson said.

The study's ideal recommendation is for light rail to go all the way to Gilbert Road, viewed as the east-west Mesa boundary line, with better park-and-ride space availability, easy freeway access and potential to get more riders another two miles east.

But that's an extra $150 million cost, for which there's no money, noted Mesa's deputy transportation director Mike James.

Soronson described Mesa Drive as a "temporary end of line."

Why Main Street?

A potential hurdle from the city's end could be concerns from downtown business owners, some of whom had opposed the suggestions of digging up Main Street.

But the cost-effectiveness study explored bus and light-rail options along Main Street, First Avenue and First Street eastbound from Sycamore, where the initial 20-mile line ends. Key factors favor Main Street.

Costs would exceed the budget if light rail were to be diverted through First Avenue or First Street. It would be up to $19 million more than the highest anticipated cost along the Main Street corridor.

Main Street rail also carries the highest projected ridership, at 4,300 daily.

There would be no need to use eminent domain, unlike the other two options, and no major utility lines would need to be moved, Soronson said.

While a bus service extension would be far less expensive, in the long run, capital costs catch up, he said.

The Downtown Mesa Association, which has not taken an official position, seems more open to the proposal, based on the study results. Association President Tom Verploegen views light rail through downtown as a "boon."

He recalled the time Main Street was once the city's main thoroughfare, before the U.S. 60 shifted business two miles south.

"All said and done, light rail will be a mass transit regional arterial back to Main Street," Verploegen said. To minimize disruption for businesses, Metro plans to focus on the area east of Country Club Drive in the lean summer months.

To downtown's advantage, there's plenty of parking behind the businesses, a parking garage and alley access, Verploegen said. The next critical discussion from the association's perspective is whether to have one lane in each direction or two for other vehicles.

Also, business operators question how to keep businesses accessible during construction, maintain adequate parking and retain sidewalks and $14 million in improvements from the last time downtown was dug up in the late 1990s.

"That will be the key next - the how," Verploegen said.

From an economic development standpoint, Mayor Scott Smith said he had come into this discussion favoring First Avenue over Main Street, but looking at the arguments in favor, it's not hard to see why "this would make sense."

Smith said it seemed like there was a stronger sentiment against light rail on Main Street a year ago.

"When this discussion first started, light rail was a rendering on paper. As it physically became a reality, people had a much better feel for the operations and how it flows down the street, and that's changed their attitude," Smith said.

The mayor said Mesa lags Phoenix and Tempe in transit-oriented mixed-use development along the light-rail line, but this could be the push it needed.

Once the extension is done, Mesa would spend about $4.5 million annually on operation and maintenance costs, according to James.

Smith said he hoped that with increased economic activity, light rail would pay for itself through the ancillary development.

"There's still people who feel it's not a good investment, but I think long term it will pay off in many ways," Smith said.


The reaction from downtown business owners is one of caution, and hope.

Omar de la Cruz, who owns Mangos Mexican Cafe and de la Cruz Bistro near the Mesa Arts Center, said he's all for it.

"We need traffic through here - the exposure we'll get and for the arts center would be great," he said.

Darren Ellis, general manager at Landmark restaurant, said while they're not happy about the construction, "we're bracing for it to happen."

"If it sparks more people to stop by our intersection, I think it would help add more business," Ellis said. He added that even the Sycamore line has helped generate some business for the restaurant.

But Mike Riley, who owns The Book Gallery in Mesa, said his primary concern is that the downtown merchants have already been through many years of construction.

"If they do decide to put light rail through there, then the merchants' primary interest would be how long would we be down," Riley said. "There's only so much you can absorb during construction."


James said Mesa is planning for future light-rail operating costs in large part from its savings on the bus routes the city pays for, but won't have to, once Proposition 400 money allocated for those routes kicks in.

Although the slumping economy is creating less tax revenue for financing regional transit projects, Mesa and Metro are unconcerned with potential funding difficulties.

The Central Mesa Corridor is high on Metro's list of expansion lines, so officials said it is safe despite the shrinking pool of money. Scaled back or not built at all would be the projects slated for later years, such as a line running west from downtown Phoenix on Interstate 10 and a route to north Phoenix along state Route 51.

Metro’s director of finance, John McCormack, said revenues for Metro through 2026 are forecast to fall $438 million short of expectations. That’s because of lower sales tax collections, which pay for Proposition 400 monies, Metro’s revenue source. And, McCormack added, the impact is far greater than that because "for every dollar lost, you lose a federal dollar" in matching funds.

Tribune writer Mike Branom contributed to this report.

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