For the last two years, steady progress has been made on the establishment of the Grand Avenue Rail Project (GARP). The project is envisioned as a way to use certain existing resources to create an attraction that will revitalize the Lower Grand Avenue business district. Awareness of GARP has grown in the downtown community, and we have received many positive comments.
In this article, I will give a brief summary of the project for those who are not familiar with GARP, and follow that with the most recent news about the project and what you can do to help.
The Location: Lower Grand Avenue
Grand Avenue has a long history as one of the oldest planned arterials in Phoenix. For over forty years from 1893 until 1934, the Phoenix Street Railway system operated streetcars on Grand Avenue, originating downtown and running to the fairgrounds. At that time most of Grand was residential. The rise of the automobile inevitably led to the decommissioning of the entire Phoenix streetcar system in 1948. Grand Avenue became an auto-related commercial strip catering to US Highway 93 traffic into downtown, and filled up with repair shops, motels, and gas stations. As Phoenix spread into the suburbs and the Interstate Highways were built, Grand began a long decline that has only recently reversed.
Over the last 10 years Grand Avenue, like its sister area Roosevelt Row, has been colonized by the arts community, followed by small independent businesses seeking inexpensive space with a funky character. This pattern was recognized with the enactment of the Arts, Culture and Small Business Zoning Overlay, which was intended to encourage just that kind of redevelopment. However, the recession has set back progress and Lower Grand remains in the doldrums.
The Opportunity: Car 116
Very few of the original Phoenix streetcars survive. One of them, Car 116, has been almost entirely restored by the Phoenix Trolley Museum, located on the north side of Hance Park at Central Avenue. The museum has never had the resources or space necessary to put the car into operation. Further, they have found themselves unwelcome at their City-owned location. As a result, they have been seeking a new home.
The Idea: GARP
Putting Car 116 on Grand Avenue seems like a natural. The project satisfies mutual needs: the merchant community of Lower Grand trying to create a walkable urban community, the likes of which are unknown in modern Phoenix; and a struggling transportation museum looking for a home and a place to run their streetcar. Certainly it’s a transportation project, but it’s much more than that; it’s an educational project, a museum project, and an economic revitalization project. A small-scale circulator going up and down Grand could serve as a people mover during events such as First Fridays, but could also serve as a park-and-ride tram into downtown from parking lots that could be located under the I-10 overpass.
Longer term, there is a real possibility that GARP will be the genesis of a comprehensive downtown streetcar system. That is more or less what happened in Tucson, where the Old Pueblo Trolley, a historic streetcar run as a non-profit, morphed into the full modern streetcar system that they have under construction today. A downtown circulator could serve all of the small-scale, walkable places that are not served by light rail, like Roosevelt Row, interface with light rail stations, and connect to major destinations like Encanto Park, the Fairgrounds, hospitals, and shopping centers.
The Question: Money
The most common question we get about GARP is the most obvious: how much will it cost? The short answer is 10 million dollars for that first mile. This figure is estimated based on what similar projects have cost in other cities, adapted to our local conditions and needs. (To put this figure in perspective, light rail projects typically cost 20 to 35 million per mile for uncomplicated situations.) GARP has been conceived in phases that can be accomplished in as little as $500,000 with the work spread over a long period of time.
Everyone knows that public money does not exist for projects like this (which is actually not entirely true). We recognized from the beginning that funding was the key, and that nothing would be coming from the City of Phoenix anytime soon, if ever, due to their budget problems. So we decided that, at least in the early stages, this project has to be self funded and grassroots driven. Our strategy is to start small and grow slowly using donations, business sponsorships, and grants.
The Grand Avenue Rail Project was incorporated as a non-profit corporation to act as the receiver of the private funds and grants and to carry out the work. GARP is applying for formal 501(c)(3) status with the IRS and can accept donations as charitable contributions.
The Catch: City of Phoenix
The essence of the GARP idea is to enhance the public street with a heritage streetcar. The problem is we don’t own the street; or to put it another way we ALL own the street. So we need the City of Phoenix, through the City Council, to buy into and endorse the project.
We have not had a lot of luck gaining Council support. In part, this is because when we say “buy into” they are taking the “buy” part literally – that we are asking them for money – which we are not. However, without some kind of formal recognition from Council we will have a very difficult time raising private funding or applying for grants. Who would give cash to a project that the City is against? And withholding endorsement is seen as just that – opposition.
The Plea: HELP!
The answer to Council opposition is public support. We are not looking for big donations from you. Your City Councilman needs to hear from you that GARP is an idea that you want to see realized. It makes no sense for the City to stand in the way of a private non-profit group that aims to make a public improvement and enhance the economic vitality of a distressed commercial area. So please send an email, sign our petition, write a letter, or speak to your councilman in public meetings. Become a Friend of GARP.
Photo Credit: Photo of the historic trolley courtesy of the author.
Full Disclosure: Taz Loomans, editor and publisher of the Blooming Rock blog, is on the board of the Grand Avenue Rail Project.Tags: Bob Graham, Grand Avenue, Grand Avenue Rail Project, phoenix, trolley