Light rail supporters often tout rail's ability to revitalize downtown areas. However, it's often tough to tell if light rail is actually revitalizing anything or if it's simply jumping in front of a moving parade. Often rail lines are developed in highly trafficked areas, where the revitalization process has already begun.
This article credits light rail (among other things) with revitalizing Houston's downtown. However, the author describes a rather long process of growth, which was apparently interrupted by rail and other kinds of construction, and then resumed:
The downtown growth frenzy abated in 2001 with major street rebuilding projects and the start of construction on the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County's first light rail line, down the middle of Main Street. The torn-up streets kept customers away.
Some of the newly established clubs and restaurants foundered, though most, including Edwards' three places, hung on.
With the completion of most of the street work and the opening, on Jan. 1, of the light rail line, business boomed again.
So the pattern here is growth, then interrupted growth during construction, then more growth. How is this rail-prompted growth?
Much of this seems to be the public's tendency to fixate on big, obvious, expensive programs and overlook less obvious, more organic drivers of growth. Of course, this shortsightedness is generally championed by politicians who want voters to think that their smart spending yields economic goodies.