Business owners in South Phoenix are urging city voters who visit their neighborhood to support Proposition 105, which they view as a last resort to stop a light rail extension project from transforming their community.
The city-wide ballot measure would stop all funding for light rail and other fixed-rail transit projects in Phoenix.
It is one of two ballot initiatives Phoenix voters have before them in the Aug. 27 special election. Early voting is underway.
The debate around Prop. 105 has centered around political ideologies in this largely liberal city, pitting Phoenix’s establishment forces and conservative operatives against each other in a fight about whether spending on light rail and fixed-rail projects is what’s best for the city’s future.
In the middle of that electoral rhetoric is South Phoenix, where outrage about a proposed light rail line morphed into the ballot measure now before voters.
If Prop. 105 passes, the 5.5-mile South Central Light Rail Extension connecting the city’s downtown core to its south side down Central Avenue to Baseline Road won’t be built.
The City of Phoenix and Valley Metro insist they have done significant community outreach for this project, but a visual survey of the storefronts in the south Central Avenue corridor supporting Prop. 105 — including neighborhood staples like Comedor Guadalajara, Lolo’s Chicken and Waffles, and Poncho’s Mexican Food and Cantina — show officials haven’t been effective in securing support for the light rail from business leaders along the proposed rail line.
Business owners along the Central Avenue corridor feel the $1.3 billion project wasn’t developed by and for their neighborhood.
“A business’ worth is greatly dependent on traffic flow, accessibility and visibility,” said Gary Pulsipher, who runs a family dentistry office on Central Avenue near Southern Avenue. “You can’t take that away and say it’s going to be the same. You’re taking away people’s livelihood, they’re taking away direct income.”
Central Avenue is South Phoenix’s main artery. Just south of Broadway Road (also called Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard), smoke from Carnicería Castillo’s outdoor grill often fills the air. It’s a lively street, scattered with churches, tire shops, barber shops, insurance companies, grocery and candy stores. There are also numerous restaurants selling a variety of food, ranging from fish and shrimp to Chinese cuisine, and, of course, Mexican fare — from tacos to snow cones to seafood and sushi.
On weekends, low-riders and historic cars parade up and down Central Avenue. The parking lots of the businesses turn into fundraising sites for families offering car washes to pay for a loved one’s funeral, or youth athletic teams hoping to cover travel costs for a tournament.
Better uses for the money, not enough benefits
George Vasquez, who owns Poncho’s on Central Avenue and Baseline Road, said transparency efforts from Valley Metro and the city were “very low.”
His restaurant has been open for 47 years.
Vasquez thinks the light extension for South Phoenix took a turn in January 2016, when the Phoenix City Council moved the project’s construction up a decade, from 2034 to 2023.
“I really do think they wanted to do their homework and have more transparency,” Vasquez said. “It didn’t have to be this way.”
That decision to move up the timeline for building the South Phoenix extension came after voters approved a transit tax in 2015 and new funding was now available. The tax primarily funds maintaining and improving bus service throughout the city, but also expands light rail routes and makes street infrastructure enhancements.
Of the people living in precincts on the route for the proposed light rail extension, more than 70% voted in favor of the transit sales tax in 2015, according to city election results
To date, that sales tax has collected $733.6 million, according to Brenda Yanez, spokeswoman for the Phoenix Public Transit Department.
Outside and inside Vasquez’s cozy business, there are signs urging a “yes” vote on Prop. 105.
“The impact on business owners and property owners… they got a lifetime of dedication, and livelihoods. Some people live behind their business,” he said.
Vasquez said the most compelling argument against the light rail extension to his neighborhood is the cost, when compared to the commuters it serves.
“I can’t tell you how many better uses for that amount of money there is,” he said. “We could use better sidewalks, landscaping, (repairing) potholes, crosswalks, lighting.”
The latest estimated cost of the South Central Light Rail Extension project is estimated at $1.3 billion.
The estimate has almost doubled since November 2017, when the total cost was projected at $705 million. Scott Smith, president of Valley Metro, told The Arizona Republic the increase is due to a new transfer hub in downtown to connect the new light rail extension to bus services and the other light rail lines, emergency funds and increased costs from steel and aluminum tariffs.
According to Valley Metro’s website, 47% percent of the project will be funded with federal money. The City of Phoenix will pick up 32% of the tab and Maricopa County the remaining 21%. City and county costs will be covered through funds from existing transportation taxes.
After it is built, the estimated annual operating cost for the South Phoenix line is $8 million, Valley Metro and the City of Phoenix say.
The city already has spent $46 million, mainly in planning and design, of the roughly $98 million it has so far appropriated for the South Phoenix light rail extension project, Yanez said.
During construction, the project would gut the neighborhood’s main artery, with the promise that a new light rail and narrowing vehicular lanes (from two each way to one) will bring more prosperity to the community in the form of access to jobs and educational opportunities and spur economic development.
Plus, residents won’t rely on cars to move around and air quality would improve, proponents insist.
Nearly two of every five residents in the corridor live below the poverty level, and 12% of households own no cars, according to Valley Metro and the City of Phoenix.
Vazquez, from Poncho’s, isn’t convinced. He said the proposed light rail stops are not close to people’s destinations, so he doesn’t buy the argument that it would replace cars.
Prop. 105 outlines that, if approved, all city money designated for the South Phoenix light rail extension will stay in the neighborhood for other infrastructure uses.
Yanez estimates that between $350 and $360 million in the capital project budget could become available if Prop. 105 passes.
Prop. 105 debates center on ideology
Yet, Prop. 105 is not just about South Phoenix. It will impact all light rail and transit funding in the city.
A segment of the city’s political establishment, including most members of the Phoenix city council – most notably Mayor Kate Gallego – unions, Democratic lawmakers, environmental groups and other community organizations oppose the ballot initiative. They argue its passage would send Phoenix backwards.
Proponents include Republican Councilman Sal DiCiccio and other local conservative institutions like the Goldwater Institute and the Arizona Free Enterprise Club (a Koch-connected group). They see spending billions of taxpayer dollars on light rail projects as fiscally irresponsible.
While representatives from campaign groups for and against Prop. 105 go on TV and radio spots, Victor Villatoro tends to clients outside his small llantera named after one of his daughters.
The Victoria Tire Shop is a small building fronts Central Avenue, with the Salt River – the geographical boundary of South Phoenix – on its north side. Like any auto body and tire shop, its walls and floors are darkened by motor oil.
Villatoro, a Honduran immigrant who has lived in the country for 20 years, shares that when he started the business 10 years ago, he had about 300 tires. Now, he boasts more than 2,000 tires and heavy machinery to work on cars.
The South Central Light Rail Extension won’t help his business grow, Villatoro said.
“The train will take away access. It will affect the clientele,” he said.
He points to the business access on Jefferson Street where light rail already exists as an example. He said he used to buy chicken and engine batteries near 8th Street.
“It’s difficult (to access). You can’t go in where you want, only where you can. It’ll be worse (on Central) since the streets are more narrow,” Villatoro said.
But he shrugs his shoulders about the light rail settling in front of his shop.
“If the government wants to build it, well… they will do it. I don’t think it’ll be stopped,” Villatoro said.
Inside his dark shop, his wife, Crystal, sat in front of a floor fan blasting hot air. Above her were pictures of their five children pasted on the wall.
“This tire shop gives me a way to live, to work. It’s nice because I don’t have to go looking for a job to pay the bills. The tire shop is my source for living,” Villatoro said.
The light rail in South Phoenix is supposed to be different from any other extension constructed in the Valley, according to Valley Metro and city officials.
“With the South Central Extension, we are implementing effective strategies and lessons learned from our prior light rail project, starting earlier than ever to prepare businesses well before construction, devoting more resources than ever to address for business assistance and other needs of this community, and involving the community in the process to a greater extent,” Yanez said.
Business assistance available
Further south on Central Avenue, Marcos Santana is in favor of the light rail extension. He owns Marco’s Printing & Signs on Roeser Road.
“In Phoenix, we’ve always been the ugly ducklings. This is a project that will beautify the community,” Santana said. He thinks the light rail will attract new visitors to the neighborhood and more businesses.
His business is among the few that display signs in opposition of Prop. 105. Nearby restaurant El Tacazo also has signs rejecting Prop. 105.
Santana has been in South Phoenix for 17 years, he said. He sees the light rail extension as an opportunity for a neighborhood whose residents sometimes bemoan being forgotten or underserved by the city.
“Now that we have the resources, why not use them?” he said.
Santana said he was part of the grassroots group of business owners and residents that banded together in the spring of 2018 under the “4 Lanes or No Train” banner to push city council to change the project lane configuration so that four lanes of vehicular traffic remained.
That push eventually failed.
“I know there isn’t a way to keep four lanes, so if that can’t be done, we have to support the project,” he said.
Both the city and Valley Metro have business assistance initiatives in South Phoenix. Santana sees that as a positive method of addressing community concerns.
The city contracted with Local First Arizona, a small business non-profit group that promotes locally-owned businesses, to survey South Phoenix businesses on the front lines of the light rail extension project and help prepare for construction.
Kimber Lanning, founder of Local First Arizona, said there are about 440 business in that area where the city designated its business assistance program. The area is slightly larger than where the light rail tracks would be laid: it is roughly between 3rd Street and 3rd Avenue, and from Van Buren Street to Baseline Road.
Lanning said 109 businesses have filled out an assessment form with Local First Arizona, and the organization is helping them develop a business plan to prepare for construction.
She said there are many differing needs. In general, some business can look at expanding the services they offer to weather construction – for instance, a restaurant could begin catering events – join a delivery service or begin online sales. Lanning said other businesses need accounting support or assistance renegotiating their leases.
“We’ve worked on every extension of the light rail so far. What is mostly unique (about the light rail extension in South Phoenix) is that we are coming from downtown high rises, all the way to Baseline. There is such a diverse array of businesses and they all have very diverse needs,” she said. “I’m excited that both sides of Central are going to be preserved. In other cases, the road had been much more wide. We are going to have all these cool little buildings that are going to be saved, I’m excited for that culture to be preserved.”
Pulsipher, the dentist, doesn’t see the business assistance program as meaningful enough.
“They call it assistance, but I don’t know really… Assistance to me means, ‘Show me money’,” he said. “They look at businesses as dispensable. They could’ve done something more with compensation.”
‘A light rail to nowhere’
At a recent event in Burton Barr Central Library, U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton advocated for rejecting Prop. 105. He brought up the contentious point of concerns about traffic lane reduction.
“Oh, by the way, people that want to have vehicular access into south Phoenix can use 7th Avenue and 7th Street. They’re not that far away,” Stanton said.
That’s precisely what Vasquez, of Poncho’s restaurant, fears.
“Being in the restaurant business, specifically, we rely a lot on spontaneous customers,” he said. “But if that customer isn’t on South Central, and is more on South 7th Street or South 7th Avenue, then we don’t see that customer.”
At the library event, Stanton also said he envisions the light rail expansion to the city’s south side a way for all residents “to experience the most diverse neighborhood that we are so blessed to have in the city.”
Larry Cohen, who owns Herdez Jewelry & Pawn shop on Central Avenue near Baseline Road, called it “a light rail to nowhere.”
Like many other business owners, Cohen said the city and Valley Metro hasn’t been transparent during planning.
He worries the planning around the controversial lane configuration is an omen to how development around the light rail project will proceed. He fears it will displace businesses and the families those support.
“This is just a ploy to take South Phoenix and turn it into a development for the builders,” Cohen said. “This country was built on the ethics and morals of what goes on here: hard work, and the ma-and-pa restaurants, and the ma-and-pa bakeries, and the ma-and-pa stores. This is what it’s all about, and this is what they still want.”
Joe Larios is a South Phoenix resident. He also serves on the city’s South Central Transit-Oriented Development Steering Committee. The committee, which first met in November 2018, was created to collaborate in developing strategies and implementing policies “to realize a shared community vision for the future of the corridor,” according to the city’s website.
He said the work of the committee so far has been “awful.”
“It doesn’t seem like we’ve had any foundation to talk about the types of recommendations that we need to be following. I find that really hard… We’re about to break ground, the policy recommendations are meant to guide the forces of development that go beyond the physical creation of the train,” Larios said. “If there’s no proper planning, if there’s no intentionality… you run the risk of mass displacement of multiple communities.”