Valley Metro Rail’s South Central Extension is like no other for its potential to create healthy, vibrant communities in a corridor long suffering from neglect and disinvestment. It’s heartening three years before construction to see concerted effort to not blow it.
The 5.5-mile extension will connect a south Phoenix population that’s highly dependent on public transportation to the larger region. And as the original light-rail route and subsequent extensions have shown, the $700 million South Central Extension will spark incredible transit-oriented development projects.
Albert Santana, light-rail administrator for the city of Phoenix, said other extensions of the light-rail systems were like rubber bands. They stretched the original route to the east and to the northwest. The Southwest Extension is like a spoke. It is connecting the light-rail system to an entirely new part of town, he said.
“For us, it’s really a transformative project,” Santana said. “It will have a forever-lasting impact on people’s lives for connectivity, revitalization, commutes to and from work and school, positive development. I think it just has all of these wonderful parts to it.”
The Obama administration sees South Central Extension’s potential, too. South Phoenix is one of seven communities in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Ladders of Opportunity Transportation Empowerment Pilot. Through LadderSTEP, Phoenix will receive technical assistance and help attracting public and private resources to enhance and preserve the South Central Avenue corridor.
In early regional planning, South Central was left off the transit planning map. Now, thanks to a Phoenix voter-approved transportation tax, it’s on a fast track for completion in 2023 — 11 years earlier than scheduled.
Anxiety rides with high expectations for the South Central Extension. After more than a decade of regional light-rail construction and operation, some tough challenges for South Central Avenue corridor residents and businesses are familiar. Others, including environmental and cultural concerns, are unique to the area.
How do Phoenix and Valley Metro ensure the South Central Extension is an urban renewal project, not an urban removal project so typical of major transportation infrastructure projects nationwide? Comprehensive planning, community engagement, early-action assistance for small businesses, addressing gentrification and displacement, and protecting cultural assets are critical to ensuring a major public investment yields equitable benefits.
A broad cross-section of Phoenix community members, from arts advocates to economic developers, spent a day with federal, regional and local transportation officials at a recent workshop on Equitable Transit Oriented Development, or eTOD. Discussions about the extension’s impact on neighborhoods touched a variety of topics, including murals, sidewalks, food deserts and social justice.
But action must follow talk, said Gretchen Nicholls, a program officer at Twin Cities LISC and one of the presenters at the workshop.
“There’s a difference between intentions and results,” Nicholls said. “How do we make sure that all of these good intentions get to results? Because equity just doesn’t happen naturally. We have to have a plan, we have to set goals, we have to have willing partners, we have to check in over time to make sure that we’re making the change we intended.”
Everyone has to get on board and ride it out. Easier said than done. But for South Central, it is being said and it can be done.