Light rail construction could be heavy burden on businesses

Tom Tingle/The Arizona Republic

Mark McNeil, manager of Sun Pontiac, worries about the effects of the light rail running down Main Street in Mesa.

By William Hermann

The Arizona Republic

Nov. 18, 2002

With Valley Light Rail officials planning to begin land purchases in January for the commuter line, merchants along the route in Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix are getting increasingly worried.

And angry.

Many say they haven't been consulted or kept informed, and they're terrified that construction will ruin them.

Light rail officials, however, insist they have gone to great lengths to consult and inform the merchants, and they will ease construction pressures as much as possible.

In interviews with The Arizona Republic, 30 business owners and managers expressed concern about the disruption to business that rail line construction could cause. They also are worried about whether customers would have difficulty reaching them when the line is complete.

Many of those interviewed say they have had almost no contact with light rail representatives or officials.

"They haven't come and talked to me about this. I got a letter about a meeting, but I couldn't go," said Vern Flanders, owner of Flanders Glass Inc., 1801 E. Washington St., Phoenix. His business is near the midpoint of the 20-mile line.

"I'm worried about people getting into my business easily, about not being able to turn in because of the rail line blocking access," he said.

Mitchell Katz, owner of Arizona Catering, 1716 W. Main St., Mesa, was astounded to hear about the light rail line. "I just recently got into this building and no one said a word to me about any light rail line," Katz said. "I've never heard of it. I've sunk every penny I have into this business."

Light rail officials said owners certainly should be aware of what is coming.

"We care about the community and people who will be impacted," said Susan Lewin, who manages the Valley Metro Rail Public Involvement Program. "We have been out in the community sharing information about the light rail project and its benefits."

Lewin said that in the past two years, they have held 723 neighborhood meetings and 278 one-on-one meetings with individual stakeholders, some of whom own several properties. Her staff has talked to 174 people who walked into their office. They have taken 993 telephone messages and returned 1,427 e-mails.

"This is much greater involvement than with typical (civic) projects," Lewin said. "We've canvassed along the light rail alignment and have six public outreach folks. We've sent out 1,100 property owner notification letters to all the owners along the alignment. . . . We don't have the staff to go out and talk to each person individually so we've had to do it mostly by meetings.

"And at the meetings they've thanked us and been grateful."

But what many owners say they wanted was for a representative from light rail to walk into their businesses and speak to them.

Sean and Thora Dowdell, owners of Club Tattoo, 1212 E. Apache Blvd., Tempe, aren't grateful for anything about the project.

"They haven't come to see us at all," Thora said. "Their attitude on this thing is, 'We're going to do this and if they don't like it then we'll hear what you have to say.' Our fate is in the hands of others. Everything we have could be lost."

"I'm sure we'll have to move and it will cost us about $100,000," Sean said. "We're on the corner where (the light rail line) turns off Apache and goes up Terrace, and both streets front our business."

Valley Light Rail spokeswoman Daina Mann said she was shocked to hear that so many owners feel left out of the process.

"We have been out there, as the meetings we've had and the contacts we've had show," she said. "But if a lot of people say they haven't been paid attention to, then that's something we need to do something about."

Lewin was dismayed to learn about the property owners' complaints.

"Since March 2000 we've been running public meetings and we've been concerned about the turnout," Lewin said. "We're doing everything we can to engage the stakeholders along the alignment, but a lot of people, until they feel it's a reality, don't take it seriously. We've been trying to bring them in at all the stages but haven't always been successful."

At this stage, property owners want to know mostly about construction.

Mark McNeil, manager of Sun Pontiac at 1600 W. Main St. in Mesa, said with a rail line running down the street in front of the car lot, "The construction phase will certainly be a big disruption. And the left turn problem of getting into our lot is a huge question for us."

John Toliver, whose family owns Toliver's Carpets at 1920 E. Apache Blvd., Tempe, said, "I'm pro light rail. But of course, the project doesn't work for everyone and it will be tough while they're building it. When it's done, it will block traffic because you won't be able to turn across the center of the road except at certain areas. That will block entrances to businesses."

Lewin said there is no way to sugarcoat the fact that "this is a huge construction project. Any huge project is going to have an impact on the community. We're doing everything we can to prepare for construction and minimize its impact on the community."

Valley officials said they had been consulting with Salt Lake City and Portland, Ore., authorities, who have recently built light rail lines, to learn how to make the process as painless as possible.

"The merchants (in the Valley) have a legitimate fear; this is their livelihood," said Chris McBride, spokesman for the Utah Transit Authority, which opened a light rail line in Salt Lake City in 1999.

"The first leg we built went right down a main street and we learned from that when we built the second part," he said. "We learned we had to keep access open to businesses, to consult with them constantly, and to inform them whenever power or phone or any other service was going to be interrupted."

Tim Greve, owner of a downtown Portland jewelry store, said the impact of the light rail line there, at first, "was devastating."

"It dramatically cut our business and finished off some others," Greve said. "But that was when they began building, in 1985, before they learned methods of mitigating the problems for merchants. Now, on the new stretch they're building, they keep access open, have signs saying businesses are still open and really work to maintain some semblance of normalcy. It has made all the difference."

Valley Light Rail officials say they will guarantee that access to businesses will not be cut off by construction, that businesses will be able to keep their signs up and that notice is given of utility cutoffs.

"We also are developing strategies to draw people into those businesses," light rail spokeswoman Mann said. "We may do coupon books we pay for to bring people into the businesses. We'll do everything we can to minimize the impact of construction."

Lewin said that after construction is over, there would be benefits to being on the light rail line. "People riding the light rail will see these business and likely come back," she said.

But in the end, Lewin said, "What you have to look at is the benefit to the community when construction is finished; lessening auto traffic and pollution, getting people around the Valley more efficiently.

"The benefit of the light rail line will be immense."

Special report

More about the Valley's light rail plans>>

Reach the reporter at william

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