Daily Archives: December 25, 2009

Phoenix area’s light rail system marks 1st year

[Source: Amanda Lee Myers, Associated Press] — When passengers began riding new light rail trains in the Phoenix area last December, many questions were on their minds.  Can light rail succeed in a city where car is king?  Will the trains survive searing desert heat in the summer?  Is it worth the $1.4 billion it cost to build?  A year later, the system is carrying 50 percent more people than expected, the trains survived the summer and kept riders cool, and many of the kinks of introducing a new mode of transportation to the nation’s fifth largest city have been worked out.

Now the big question is: Can light rail continue to maintain its ridership and service amid the recession while moving forward with plans to expand the system from 20 to 57 miles?  “It’s going to be very hard. The challenges are going to be severe,” said Rod Diridon, executive director of the San Jose, Calif.-based Mineta Transportation Institute, a nonpartisan research group that conducts transportation policy studies.

Diridon said it’s “absolutely remarkable” that Phoenix has managed to see higher ridership than expected while maintaining service this past year.  “All across the nation transit systems depend on sales and property tax dollars, and because sales tax revenues are down in some places as much as 50 percent, service has been cut back and ridership is down in most places,” Diridon said.  “The opposite is true in Phoenix.  They’ve retained ridership and maintained service.  That’s a phenomenal  success given the state of the economy.”

It’s not been an easy task for light-rail operator Metro.  The agency had to pay about $500,000 more than the expected $1.5 million to keep the trains cool all year long, fund an educational program for passengers who were inadvertently not paying for their rides, and lay off about 20 people.  [Note: To read the full article, visit Phoenix area’s light rail system marks 1st year.]

Viewpoint: Phoenix budget woes, big art, light rail made ’09 quite a year

[Source: Arizona Republic; section headers organized by yours truly] — With this being Christmas week, we figured you wouldn’t want to read a traditional editorial any more than we wanted to write one.  So today, we lighten things up a bit with awards for notable achievements in 2009.

Phoenix Overall

  • Story of the year: Phoenix did the virtually impossible this year — it cut $270 million from the general fund to balance the budget due to low sales-tax revenue.  Residents are feeling the effects with reduced hours or closures of swimming pools, libraries, and senior centers.  They also see more graffiti and potholes because staff is stretched so thin.  Now the city is talking about cutting an additional $100 million or so.  This story is getting old.
  • Best cheerleader: Mayor Phil Gordon earns this award again.  With frequent trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby for stimulus funds, and Janet Napolitano resigning as governor to lead Homeland Security, Gordon is the face of Arizona.
  • Embarrassment: Rep. Ray Barnes’ rambling reasons for voting to cut $144 million from public education.  Grab some eggnog and watch this Phoenix Republican go off.
  • Hot potato: The idea to raise the sales tax temporarily to generate revenue quickly.  Mayor Gordon suggested a community member take on his idea.  But no one wants to touch it.
  • Landmark: The city became the second in the state to offer a domestic-partner registry to gay or straight couples who share a Phoenix residence.  Among other privileges, the registry grants partners visitation rights in hospitals.
  • Pillar: City Manager Frank Fairbanks earns this award again.  He retired this year, but not before balancing the nastiest budget deficit in city history.  Thanks, Frank.

Downtown Focused/Strong Influence

  • Pushin’ on: Light rail has its fans and its foes.  But ridership is up and businesses have sprouted along the line.  The system is approaching it first anniversary.  We say light rail is on track.
  • Newcomer: Janet Echelman’s “Her Secret Is Patience” at the new Civic Space Park downtown opened to much criticism.  Meant to resemble a cactus bloom, the floating sculpture was called everything from a basketball hoop to a male contraceptive.  Not that we mind.  Some of the best artwork in the world drew heavy criticism.  We’re just glad people are noticing what downtown Phoenix has to offer.
  • Comeback: Phoenix Urban Market Grocery and Wine Bar at Central Avenue and Pierce Street is the first grocer to serve the area in 30 years.  It only carries the basics.  But milk, vegetables, bread, pasta and other staples are welcome.
  • Bragging rights: President Barack Obama made three visits to the Valley this year.  One of those was to the new Phoenix Convention Center, where Obama addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention.
  • Feather in the cap: A budding knowledge-based economy, parks and preservation efforts, and teen spaces at public libraries make Phoenix an All-America City.  Now it has the civic award to prove it.  This was Phoenix’s fifth win.  It would be a shame to lose these gains to budget cuts in the down economy.

Other Parts of Phoenix

  • Senseless act: A photo-enforcement-van driver was shot to death while deployed near Loop 101 in north Phoenix.  Thomas DeStories was indicted in connection with the shooting death of Douglas Georgianni.
  • Tallest story: Despite opposition from neighbors, the City Council approved a Mormon temple whose steeple and spire will rise 86 feet above the Deer Valley area.
  • Unsung hero: The Macehualli Day Labor Center in northeastern Phoenix provides a central location for day laborers and potential employers to negotiate business.  The center is for sale.

Fewer hotel bookings pose challenge in downtown Phoenix

Downtown Phoenix Wyndham Hotel (soon to be Marriott)

[Source: Jahna Berry, Arizona Republic] — The ongoing travel recession and, to some extent, city-built Sheraton in downtown Phoenix are putting pressure on central Phoenix hotels, some hotel owners say.  Tourists are traveling less and spending less, dampening the travel boom that hotel owners hoped would follow last year’s completion of the Phoenix Convention Center’s $600 million expansion.  Properties are responding in a variety of ways:

  • Last week, the Wyndham Phoenix Hotel asked for and received a 20-year tax discount from Phoenix that will save the hotel at 50 E. Adams St. $400,000 annually.  The deal will finish the hotel’s renovation and switch to the Marriott flag from Wyndham, which, the majority owner says, will drum up business.
  • The Lexington Hotel Central Phoenix, 1100 N. Central Ave., is open but is seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, court records show.
  • The Clarendon Hotel is starting a new promotion geared toward business travelers that will give hotel guests $20 cash for each night they stay there.

In the 14 months that it has been open, the 1,000-rooom Sheraton also has changed the market.  Phoenix built the hotel to accommodate larger conventions that were expected to meet there.  Although several groups, including the National Rifle Association, brought tens of thousands of new tourists to Phoenix, those bookings have tapered off.

Nationally, “distressed hotels are the way of the world right now because of the debt that they are carrying and because there is no business,” said Jeff Higley, a spokesman for Smith Travel Research.  “There are hotels that are struggling to meet payroll.”

The Phoenix market has been one of the hardest-hit travel markets in the nation.  From January though November, city hotel occupancy fell 12.6 percent and the average room rate tumbled 15 percent, compared with the same period in 2008.  A key barometer slid 26 percent in the city.  Revenue available per room is the amount of money generated per room excluding extras such as food and spa visits.  Only New York’s RevPar figure dropped more in that period.  It declined 28.1 percent, according to Smith Travel.  [Note: To read the full article, visit Fewer hotel bookings pose challenge in downtown Phoenix.]