Critics of a pricey new light rail line in Phoenix envisioned a colossal waste of money when the project was proposed some years ago. But instead, the billion dollar rail line has reinvigorated local businesses amid the city’s economic slump – thanks in large part to weekend riders.

Since opening in December, tens of thousands of passengers have been traveling by train to the city’s restaurants, bars, cultural events and ball games, the New York Times reported. Even detractors are admitting there is something to be said for the light rail. “I’ve taken it,” conceded Starlee Rhoades, a spokeswoman for the Goldwater Institute. “It’s useful.”

Today, close to 33,000 riders take the new light rail daily, a number that eclipses initial projections that estimated 26,000 riders daily. Many are students from Arizona State University who rely on the light rail to get from the school’s Tempe campus to its downtown campus. Just over a quarter of riders use the train for work, compared to an average of 60 percent of riders in other cities who use public transport for work.

As a result, the light rail has been a boon for businesses in downtown Phoenix. In the first quarter of 2009, the downtown area saw revenues increase by 13 percent compared to an overall drop of 16 percent in the rest of the city, according to the city’s Community and Economic Development Department.

“There has been this pent-up demand for downtown Phoenix to grow up,” said Nick Bastian, a realtor who blogs about the light rail. “And the light rail has given people an excuse to say let’s go down there and check it out.”

Initially, critics of the light rail grumbled about its cost, which was subsidized by taxes approved in 2001. With a price tag of $1.4 billion, the rail line costs $1.75 for a single ride and $3.50 for an all-day pass. But tracks reach deep into suburban areas to the east and west of downtown Phoenix.

Now, the rail line is only expected to grow. Public and private investors have poured $5 billion into ventures around the site of the light rail, including a thriving real estate market, according to the city’s development agency. And in 2012, Valley Metro, which operates the line, hopes to break ground on 37 miles toward Glendale and northeast Phoenix. By 2017? All aboard!

Also on MNN: 

• Portland, Ore., gets another light-rail infusion.