Mesa will design critical elements of the downtown light-rail line in the next few months, making decisions that will help shape the downtown's character for decades to come.
The city is working with downtown merchants and residents to determine how wide Main Street should be, where stations will go and the location of a park-and-ride lot.
Construction will start in 2012 to extend Metro from Sycamore to just east of Mesa Drive, and decisions on some design work need to be made this spring. The line is set to open in 2016.
It's difficult to reconfigure tracks or stations once the transit system goes into use, which makes the upcoming decisions so significant.
"How Metro integrates in downtown is really critical in the future of downtown," said Mike James, Mesa's transportation director.
The most complex issue is the width of Main Street.
Metro rail tracks will take up 27 feet of the road, which won't leave room for the existing two lanes of traffic in each direction and left-turn lanes. The city could keep two lanes in each direction without any turn lanes, or have one lane each way with left turn lanes at intersections.
Some merchants want the wider street so more traffic can get through downtown. But others want the single lane to slow down traffic. That encourages people to walk around and allows the city to keep parking.
"My preference is a single lane and then to have as much parking on the street as they can," said Jeff Gunnell of Gunnell's Jewelry. "Main Street was set up that way 100 years ago, for parking in front of the stores."
The wider street would handle more traffic - but not as efficiently. A computerized traffic model shows the single-lane configuration would let traffic flow more smoothly while leaving space for a dedicated left-turn lane.
Mesa is showing all the light-rail options to a 42-member committee appointed by Mayor Scott Smith, letting them come to a consensus on many issues. The single-lane option got a favorable review during a meeting this month, but no decision has been made yet. The group is headed by Vice Mayor Kyle Jones, who said merchants have told him they like the narrower road.
"They would prefer to have people slow down because people are just passing through," Jones said. "They want people who are coming down for the destination."
The city is also looking at the best spot for station locations, which require more space than just the rail track. The city wants to find places that require the least disruption to existing businesses while making sure they are in places where passengers will want to board.
A major goal in each decision is to keep as much of the existing sidewalks and landscaping as possible. The city figures that will soften the impact of construction on merchants.
The extension will bring Metro to Lesueur, two blocks east of Mesa Drive. The city is also working with the light-rail committee to choose the precise place for a 300-space parking lot.
Metro will focus its most disruptive construction during the summer, when business normally drops off for merchants, said Wulf Grote, Metro's project development director.
"We're working with the downtown businesses in Mesa because I know that's a real sensitive area," he said. "We're trying to make sure we minimize the effect on their businesses."
The downtown light-rail construction won't be as painful as the work on the initial 20-mile line that opened a year ago. Mesa rebuilt Main Street a decade ago and moved the underground utilities in anticipation of Metro's arrival. The utility work is usually the most disruptive.
Still, Gunnell expects some disruption. He remembers the Main Street construction a decade ago and an even more painful project in 1984, when the city choked off access by replacing the road and sidewalks. He figures this will be easier to survive.
"It will be painful when they do it, but I think for the long term, it's the best thing the city can do."