Report: 21st Century Transportation for Arizona

The Businesses of Light Rail

A Compilation of Local Business Interviews
Released by: Arizona PIRG Education Fund

Arizonans clearly desire increased and improved public transportation options, as proven by the fact that the public has voted in favor of taxes to support public transportation in the past. Furthermore, since the light rail line began operation, it has consistently achieved higher-than-expected and record-breaking ridership numbers. Whereas many people initially questioned the benefits of light rail – especially when weighed against any costs that would be incurred – and many business owners complained about how much light rail construction hurt their business, since the rail’s completion the overall feedback has been generally positive.

From Chamber of Commerce representatives, to government transportation officials, to advocacy organizations, Arizonans recognize that the light rail has helped our state in numerous ways. Despite nay-saying during the planning and construction processes, many Arizona businesses and citizens understand the numerous benefits of light rail now that the line is up and running and people can see and experience the trains for themselves.

However, as of yet, there has been no document which compiles anecdotes of how the light rail has benefited the local economy. This report provides real-life examples of businesses that have thrived by having light rail access near their establishments, documenting perspectives from local business owners in their own words that statistics simply cannot provide.

Common Themes Identified

Combined, the interviews illustrate how local businesses have been helped by the light rail, especially pertinent information given the recently struggling economy and significantly reduced level of retail sales in general. The stories told document ways in which the light rail has helped these businesses, in perhaps unexpected and sometimes surprising manners.

It is especially interesting to note common themes and perspectives that can be identified when looking at the interviews collectively. Several common themes worth noting include:

  • Increased foot traffic due to light rail: Despite initial misgivings about the transit line, Keith Jackson of the George and Dragon now describes himself as a light rail advocate, and says that, since the rail’s construction, he watches people come from the nearby Central Avenue and Indian School Road light rail stop into the George and Dragon - and with larger streams of people now coming in on the weekends and evenings, Keith has witnessed as many as 60 people in one night coming to his bar from the light rail.
  • Businesses shaping their location decisions in anticipation of light rail, thereby potentially decreasing urban sprawl: Tina Martinez from the Mekong Plaza bought her property knowing the light rail would be coming soon nearby, and has seen a 30% increase in revenue since the light rail opened; Deborah Skinner of the Artisans’ Gallery on Mill Ave. estimates that she probably gets close to a dozen people per week in her shop that came from the light rail, having ridden the transit line ‘simply to try it out.’
  • Light rail’s value as a transportation alternative for special events like community festivals: Chan and Quyen Tieu from UnPhoGettable talk about the large, semi-annual Moon and Tet festivals held at the Mekong Plaza within which their restaurant is located, and how there sometimes isn’t enough parking space in the plaza to accommodate all the Festival-goers, so the light rail enables more people to attend while lessening the hassle and difficulty of parking.
  • Increased visibility for businesses near the light rail: Mike Shaw from Brooklyn’s NYC Pizza says that the light rail helps create an awareness of his business, a benefit that he actively courts through effective advertising specifically designed to catch people coming off the light rail & draw them to his eatery by announcing specials in large print.
  • Light rail’s role in community redevelopment: Raveen Arora from the India Plaza insists that the light rail has helped clean up the area around his plaza, closing down seedy motels and other similar operations, and Keith Jackson from the George and Dragon says the rail has pumped life into the community on 7th Ave. near his bar, which in turn has chased out the “riff-raff” and fixed up the homes in the area.
  • Light rail’s role as a mobility option for people who cannot drive: Doris Leis of Antiques on Central talks of Randy, her employee who cannot drive due to lack of peripheral vision, explaining that the light rail has created a win-win situation because it provides a much-needed service for Randy, and allows her to hire somebody who can’t drive on his own; Michael Monti from La Casa Vieja and Pat Mulqueen from Mulqueen Sewing both spoke of the light rail increasing their numbers of older customers who wouldn’t necessarily have been able to patronize their businesses without the light rail.

Additionally, a number of the business owners interviewed explained that despite initial hesitations and misgivings on the exact benefits – if any – light rail would bring to their business in particular and the community in general, since the rail’s completion they have seen specific, tangible benefits ranging from increased overall foot traffic to community redevelopment. Some even went from being outspoken critics of the light rail, to becoming staunch rail advocates.

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