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Light Rail Propels $6.8B in Metro EDV

Photo credit: Sean Peick/Cronkite News

By Luci Scott for Arizona Builder’s Exchange

Economic development along the light rail in metro Phoenix is a testament to the success of public investment spurring private enterprise.

The public capital investment in metro Phoenix’s light rail totals nearly $1.5B, and total investment has been more than $6.8B. The first 20 miles of the light rail system opened in December 2008.

The number of projects – recently completed, under construction and planned projects – from 2008 to present total 169.

“There’s been a lot of positive activity along light rail,” noted Albert Santana, light rail project administrator for Phoenix.

“The development downtown with ASU has been great.”

Of the nearly $7B in development the light rail has spurred, Phoenix alone has seen $5B in economic development activity, including 48 new restaurants in the downtown core alone.

Opportunity still exists, as vacant parcels remain scattered along the 20-mile route; among them are sites on the south side of Camelback at 17th Avenue, on the southwest corner of 7th Avenue and Camelback, the southwest corner of Central and Turney avenues, on the southwest corner of 28th Street and Washington, on the southeast corner of 38th Street and Washington, and on the north and south sides of Washington at 48th Street, and at 56th Street and Washington.

“As a city we’re always trying to encourage (development) and we hope get those places activated, depending on land-use policy,” Santana said. “In downtown, we’ve tried to find ways to allow flexibility for the private sector.”

Future opportunity looms

Future opportunity looms as well; seven rail extensions are under way and by 2034 the rail will cover 60 miles. The 40 additional miles will be built using a variety of funds, including regional and city sales tax revenue and federal grants.

Today, weekday riders average 44K, and those who ride the entire 20 miles take an hour from end to end. Trains operate seven days a week, more than 20 hours a day.

Super Bowl XLIX spurred a record doubling the highest daily ridership; on Saturday before the game, light rail carried nearly 130K passengers, about twice the previous maximum seen.

“Before that, our highest daily boarding was 68,000,” Santana said.

Students and Faculty Contribute to Ridership

One aspect of development that has been especially successful is in education.

Arizona State University accounts for 18 to 20 percent of the boardings when the school is in session, and students in two high schools on the line ride the train as well, Santana said.

The rail helped sell universities on locating in Mesa. Benedictine University is at 225 E. Main St., and Wilkes University is at 245 W. Second St., about a block away from the rail.

“As they toured the city, they liked the idea of locating around the light rail, which is huge connecting piece” since people who live in other parts of the Valley can easily get to downtown Mesa.

“If you speak with those universities, they will tell you that when they were making their decision about where they would set up shop, where they would plant their flag, both considered light rail pretty strongly in their decision,” said Shea Joachim, senior economic development project manager in Mesa.

Mesa’s busiest station is the eastern terminus, near Dobson, and construction is under way to extend the rail 3.1 miles east, into downtown Mesa.

“We’re pretty excited about that. Light rail brings some opportunities to west Mesa and downtown.

Mesa’s comprehensive planning effort

About three years ago, Mesa put in place a comprehensive planning effort for the area surrounding light rail, the boundaries being from University to Broadway and Country Club to Gilbert Road.

The city wanted to put in place a regulatory environment for future planning to encourage transit-oriented development.

“When you make that significant of an investment, if you don’t put an environment into place to encourage complementary development along it, you will have friction from what you’re asking of the development community.”

Out of that effort, the city developed one vision for the central Main Street area. Another key, he said, was the city’s form-based zoning code, which is different from how it has done zoning in the past. In the conventional method, planners are worried about separation of uses. Residential use is kept away from heavy industrial use, for example.

In the form-based approach, more attention is paid to the form of the building and less attention is paid to the uses within.

“We’ve put in place a document that really demonstrates to the development community, the private sector, what types and form of building we’re looking for along light rail,” Joachim said. “It gives predictability as to what the city is looking for, and allows developers to be flexible with uses. We hope that planning effort will be the impetus for economic development in … downtown Mesa.

“It’s a high-level vision calling for transit-oriented development in appropriate places near and around the stations and preservation of key neighborhoods,” he said.

It affords opportunities to add density to parcels and create an urban ambiance, but he said he is not talking 25- to 30-story towers but in the 4- to 6-story range.

“There’s a character and charm to downtown that we’re trying to preserve,” he said.

“Light rail is a big piece of the puzzle; it’s not even in operation yet (downtown), but we’re excited about the future could bring.”