Despite a Phoenix City Council defeat in April, south Phoenix residents are not giving up their efforts to derail a proposed 6-mile light rail extension down Central Avenue.
More than 200 residents recently crammed into a gymnasium at the South Mountain Community Center to protest the extension that they believe will bankrupt businesses and bring crime to their neighborhoods.
For more than an hour, residents questioned why the city would spend so much money on something they did not want, shared fears of heightened criminal activity and brainstormed ways to make their point to the City Council.
The planned extension from Jefferson Street to Baseline Road will require the entire 6-mile stretch be whittled down to two vehicular lanes — one in each direction — which many Central Avenue businesses worry will diminish their customer base.
The grassroots movement that organized the meeting was initially branded "4 lanes or no train," but the vast majority of attendees conveyed they no longer want light-rail in any form.
The community faces an uphill battle to kill the south Phoenix light rail plans.
Phoenix residents in 2015 approved a transportation plan that included funding for the project. The plans have been drawn, the Phoenix City Council has approved them and construction is expected to begin in 2019.
But now that Mayor Greg Stanton — a fervent supporter of the project — has resigned to run for Congress and two pro-light-rail council members are expected to step down to run for his seat, could an opportunity emerge?
South Phoenix is a diverse Latino, African-American and low-income community.
The storefronts on both sides of Central Avenue are occupied by small auto shops, warehouses, pawn shops, fast-food joints and mom-and-pop restaurants. Housing developments sit just behind the businesses.
The cost of the south central light rail extension is expected to top $700 million. The funding comes from a city transportation tax and federal transit funds.
Several of the people at the Thursday meeting said city officials have ignored south Phoenix's needs — things like streetlights, repaired sidewalks and streets and better public safety resources — for decades, and questioned why the money couldn't be used for those things instead.
Several others, including business owners, feared they will not survive the decreased traffic on Central Avenue, both during construction and after the number of lanes are reduced on the street to accommodate the light rail.
Claudia Vargas Duran said she is raising a family in south Phoenix and does not plan to move. But when she looks at how the light-rail has shaped other communities, she worries she may not have a choice.
"We run the risk of being pushed out just like with downtown Phoenix where there used to be people of all income levels and now we're being pushed out and only the rich ones can live there because of the expensive condos," Duran said.
Not everyone is against the light-rail project.
Councilwoman Kate Gallego, who represents part of south Phoenix, has been a fierce supporter of the project. At a council meeting in April, she said it would be "life-changing" for many residents and will drive economic opportunity.
"It's a very exciting project. There are a lot of people here who will benefit from it, who will get a chance to go to school, get a chance to go to jobs," Gallego said.
Thalia Cabrera, a lifelong south Phoenix resident, said at Thursday's meeting that she represents an overlooked group of young people in the community that needs transit to pursue opportunities.
"We want to make the south side better. We're tired of people putting the south side down and this light-rail will help us," she said. "There are three major universities downtown. ... It is important for us to be able to get down there because a lot of us cannot afford a vehicle."
However, Cabrera said, she would prefer for Central Avenue to maintain four lanes.
Valley Metro CEO Scott Smith told The Arizona Republic in April that the transit agency had planned to keep four lanes of traffic on Central Avenue, but "there simply isn't enough space."
If Valley Metro and Phoenix had decided to move forward with maintaining four lanes, they would have had to acquire a significant chunk of land from surrounding property owners. Smith estimated 80 structures would have been either partially or fully demolished.
"Many of the very businesses that are upset about this ... I think are working in buildings that would be impacted if we were to widen the street to four lanes," Smith said.
In April, the "4 lanes or no train" group submitted a petition to the Phoenix City Council, asking it to revise the design of the light rail extension to include four vehicle lanes or cancel the project altogether.
The council denied that request, but Councilman Michael Nowakowski supported it and told the community he opposed the reduction of vehicle lanes in south Phoenix. However, he voted in favor of that configuration in 2014.
Nowakowski attended the Thursday meeting and told the community that Phoenix would never have allowed the lanes to be reduced for the light-rail in other parts of the city.
"It's OK to do that in south Phoenix but it's not OK to do that in the north side? That's wrong," he said.
His comments received a resoundingly positive response from the neighbors until he revealed that he wasn't opposed to light rail as a whole, just the reduction of lanes.
"I believe that the people in south Phoenix and all those business owners, they do want a light-rail, but they don't want their businesses to be interrupted," Nowakowski said.
The community disagreed. All of his positive comments about light rail were met with boos.
Instead, a representative from Councilman Sal DiCiccio's office emerged as the hero of the meeting. DiCiccio, who represents Ahwatukee and neighborhoods in north-central Phoenix, is a steadfast opponent of light rail.
DiCiccio's Chief of Staff Sam Stone told the crowd the councilman opposed the light-rail in its entirety because it "costs a huge amount of money and only delivers service to a small number of people."
"We think this plan is a big mistake," Stone said. "We think we can do so much more with these funds for all of you and the entire city."
Following two hours of discussion, the community asked what they should do to try to stop Phoenix from moving forward with the light rail.
Carlos Garcia, the director of Puente Arizona who was asked to organize the meeting, suggested the group submit another petition to the council asking them to reconsider the project.
He also said there will be a meeting to discuss next steps at 6 p.m. Thursday at the South Mountain Community Center.
Stone told the group that they have an "unprecedented opportunity" to change the council's decision, because pro-light-rail Mayor Greg Stanton just resigned to run for Congress and soon Gallego and Councilman Daniel Valenzuela, also light rail proponents, will step down to run for mayor.
"You've got a council right now that will be amenable to listening to what you want if you come out of this room … and say this is what we need," Stone said. "You're going to have a few months with this council right now to do that and I urge you to come together very strongly. Come to us and say this is what we need."