Old Town Scottsdale proprietors call into question fixed-rail push

Marilyn Atkinson displays what Scottsdale Road could look like if fixed-rail became a mass-transit option in the city of Scottsdale. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

Marilyn Atkinson Wednesday, April 6 displays what Scottsdale Road could look like if fixed-rail became a mass-transit option in the city of Scottsdale. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

Both a business and property owner in Old Town Scottsdale are raising concerns city leaders have their hearts set on developing a high-capacity transit program that could allow Light Rail up the gut of the historic downtown marketplace.

Scottsdale City Council is expected Tuesday, April 12 to begin deliberations on a Transportation Master Plan update that is expected to set the tone of what mass-transit and transportation options will be available within city limits for residents and tourists alike for years to come.

According to Scottsdale Transportation Director Paul Basha, Scottsdale City Council had a tentative date of Tuesday, May 3 to vote on the proposed Transportation Master Plan update.

“The council vote was tentatively scheduled for May 3,” Mr. Basha said in an April 7 written statement. “We do not yet have a tentative date for a council vote.  It depends on the direction we receive from the city council on April 12.”

Longtime Old Town Scottsdale business and property owners Marilyn Atkinson and Richard Garcia say they are concerned with one facet of the proposed Transportation Master Plan update: potential future rail routes.

They say the idea of having fixed-rail contemplated at the city staff level is a sure sign of municipal intentions, while one member of Scottsdale City Council says it has nothing do with intentions but rather opening the door to the conversation of what mass-transit options need to be contemplated in years to come.

Meanwhile a Scottsdale Executive Forum has been formed with local leaders from both the public and private sector creating a unique voice of support for the development of high-capacity transit options within Scottsdale city limits.

“As the Scottsdale City Council prepares to approve a Transportation Master Plan for today that will determine action that may not be needed for decades, we think not only is it wise to include high-capacity transit choices, but it is the responsible thing to do,” the executive forum says in its April 5 letter to the Scottsdale Independent newspaper.

“We understand there is still a lot of work to do before we reach consensus on what elements of transit are right for the city. And that’s fine. We don’t need to try to solve or even debate those challenges now. But as the years go by, the city continues to grow and the world around us changes in ways we can’t even predict, we will need the ability to put all aspects of our transit needs on the table for consideration.”

Notable members of the executive forum include Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce President Mark Hiegel; Honor Health CEO Tom Sadvary; and Scottsdale Community College President Jan Gehler along with several other local business leaders.

“Fact is, we cannot afford to rely solely on vehicles to create connectivity between major economic and residential hubs, community centers and entertainment and recreational destinations,” the collective group opines.

Richard Garcia, an Old Town Scottsdale property owner, says taxpayers will bear the burden for generations if a fixed-rail system were to come to the city. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

Richard Garcia, an Old Town Scottsdale property owner, says taxpayers will bear the burden for generations if a fixed-rail system were to come to the city. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

Protecting Old Town Scottsdale

Old Town proprietors say they are not against high-capacity transit, but what they say they are against is fixed-rail along Scottsdale Road, which is identified as rail route in the forthcoming Transportation Master Plan update.

“What they have is Scottsdale Road designated with the federal government as the rail corridor, so if they go off this corridor they have to go back to the federal government,” said Ms. Atkinson Wednesday, April 6 at the Atkinson’s Indian Trading Post in Old Town Scottsdale. “Within the next three to five years there is potential here and when they start digging for this rail the city has to pay for all of the infrastructure.”

The Atkinson’s Indian Trading Post has been a Scottsdale business for nearly 70 years, according to Ms. Atkinson.

“This downtown needs to remain historically protected,” she pointed out of the rich heritage apparent on Old Town streets. “You are going to blight your downtown, that is what you are going to do with this plan.”

Old Town Scottsdale property owner Richard Garcia of Garcia Realty Advisors says he and his fellow property owners are looking to protect the unique nature of the downtown marketplace.

“Light Rail will result in a substantial financial burden on business during construction. Some businesses will not survive the depressed sales that typically accompany the lengthy construction period,” he said April 6 at the Atkinson Indian Trading Post. “Loss of revenue for both businesses and property owners will create an inability to lease property and retain tenants, which will cause plummeting property values.”

Mr. Garcia contends Scottsdale residents will be the loser in this proposed high-capacity equation.

“Rail transit will never earn enough from riders to cover its costs. Valley Metro estimates that its Light Rail will incur an incremental cost of over $13 per passenger boarding,” he said.

“Fares are expected to cover less than 10 percent of this cost. Taxpayers will be required to cover the rest. The losses and burdens Scottsdale residents will bear are permanent in nature.”

Corinne Holliday, a spokeswoman for Valley Metro, disputes the claims made by Mr. Garcia referring to what she called, “farebox recovery” being at 10 percent. She says that number of cost recovery at the farebox is 41 percent.

“… It’s said that cost per passenger is $13, when in fact the operating cost per passenger for Light Rail is $2.18. The cost to operate per revenue mile is $12.60,” she said in an April 7 written response to the published story at scottsdaleindependent.com Wednesday, April 6.

Both Mr. Garcia and Ms. Atkinson agree an uptick in trolley services can achieve what Old Town Scottsdale needs, which is circular mass-transit options.

“We believe in trollies,” Ms. Atkinson said. “You can easily change their route and make them more frequent if we need to.”

A champion of the debate

Scottsdale Councilwoman Virginia Korte says she is a staunch supporter of developing a community dialogue on what future mass-transit needs a community like Scottsdale may need to contemplate.

Virginia Korte

Virginia Korte

She points out the chamber of commerce, the Scottsdale Convention & Visitor’s Bureau and the Scottsdale Area Association of Realtors have come together to form a local group of influence focused on moving Scottsdale Forward.

“They have three initiatives, the Desert Discovery Center, downtown Scottsdale and the third is transportation,” she said in an April 5 phone interview.

“There has been a lot of conversation about this upcoming Transportation Master Plan. I think it is really important for our citizens to understand that this only opens the door to the conversation — that is what we need to do is look to the future of what our needs will be in the next 20 to 30 years.”

Councilwoman Korte says concerns about rail lines up Scottsdale Road or anywhere else in the city is much to do about nothing.

“In this draft transportation plan there is a section on transportation and transit routes. The transportation commission has said we need to have a discussion around high-capacity transit. Are we putting the cart before the horse? Perhaps,” she said.

“Let’s face it, Light Rail is 20th century technology. Perhaps in 20 or 30 years we may be looking at something completely different,” she explained.

“We need to have this conversation about connectivity to the rest of the Valley. But in the last 10 years, like it or not, Light Rail is a success story. Scottsdale needs to consider where it wants to be in the public transportation design and machine throughout the Valley. We could very much become an island.”

Councilwoman Korte says high capacity transit is an important part of any community’s future economic prosperity.

“A high capacity transit is important for our economic sustainability. I think it is important for our continued vibrancy downtown. It is also important for our tourism industry and to provide options for our tourists,” she said.

“We need to consider our elderly residents. I believe more and more people, particularly those who are choosing to live in the more urban areas, are asking for less congestion on the roads. I am not talking about Light Rail; I am talking about different options for mass transit and looking for the vision for the future for that decision.”

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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