Off the Track

Are voters being railroaded on mass transit?

One inch could be all that decides whether Valley voters are willing to tax themselves for thirty years to build the country's most ambitious mass transit system.

That inch--raising public suspicion Valley-wide--is how mapmakers for the Regional Public Transportation Authority show mile-wide "corridors" in which they want to build a 103-mile light rail train system. Those widely distributed maps are key tools in a campaign to convince voters to go to the polls March 28 and impose a half-cent sales tax for the next three decades to build the ValTrans system.

But when the public complains those enormous corridors are too vague, transit officials say they just can't be more specific. And they beg for trust, promising plenty of public input before the final routes are chosen--after the March vote.

But New Times has found voters have cause for suspicion:
* The Phoenix City Council already has cut a deal with Central Avenue business owners to keep the elevated rail system off that street. Instead, New Times has discovered, the trains will likely run along First and Second Avenues and through established neighborhoods.

* Although the bulk of the ValTrans system will be within Phoenix, the city council has yet to appoint a citywide citizens' group to recommend specific routes--something it won't do until after the election. Yet three other Valley cities already have specific recommendations from their citizens' committees, and the Mesa City Council has already approved the Mesa route.

* Contrary to the vagueness of the mile-wide corridors, other maps show transit planners know where they intend to build parts of the rail lines, down to a mere 100 feet.

* In the Arcadia area of Phoenix, transit planners are trying to undo the recommendations of the local village committee, which prefers to keep the line away from established neighborhoods and the irrigation canals.

These findings add fuel to already existing suspicions that voters are not being told the whole story, yet are being asked to fund the $8.5 billion system. Many worry that voters will decide they have too little information and will reject ValTrans, which also includes nearly 1,200 new buses.

But transit officials seem unmoved by the familiar concern of citizens who show up at public meetings demanding to know if their homes will be taken. Worse yet is the fear their homes won't be taken but they'll end up living next door to a two-story concrete pier with trains running every five minutes from 5 a.m. until midnight.

Even when confronted with these findings, transit officials maintain this kind of specificity isn't necessary for voters. And when the routing along Central Avenue is questioned--the "spine" of the entire transit system--officials try to rewrite history and deny what happened.

IT'S NOT A QUESTION of time.
Transit planners began working on the rail system back in 1985 when Maricopa County voters approved a half-cent increase in the sales tax to fund a massive freeway system. That same vote also set up the regional authority to plan a Valleywide mass transit system--an admission that freeways alone would solve neither the traffic nor air pollution problems. Regional transit director Larry Miller says his staff studied where people live, where they work and where they want to go by high-speed transit. The result was an $8.5 billion transit system of light rail and buses that would be financed largely by a half-cent sales tax. A whole list of elected and business leaders has lined up behind ValTrans, calling its completion crucial to the future of the Valley.

But even after all the studies, transit officials say they are still not sure exactly where the system will go.

The result is the mile-wide corridors on the map. "If we could have been more precise, we would have," Miller contends. He maintains the maps are a more honest way of telling voters there is no guarantee of knowing just where this rail system will go, particularly for those segments that won't be built before the turn of the century. But what about the first 49 miles of the system that will be built within the next eleven years--the line from Glendale through central Phoenix to Tempe? Miller tries to sidestep the obvious--that in some cases, they do know but aren't telling--by saying his planners didn't have enough money to do the engineering studies necessary to be specific.

When pressed, however, Miller acknowledges that part of the reason voters were not given a map showing the real routes was purely aesthetics. "It didn't graphically show the scope of the project," Miller says, suggesting that if the lines on the map weren't big and bold, voters wouldn't see the system as grandiose enough to justify the expense.

But aesthetics aside, voters haven't been impressed with the maps.
For example, the map shows that one train line will go somewhere between 40th and 48th Streets north from Sky Harbor Airport. That resulted in one woman, whose house is on 42nd Street, coming to a community meeting to question whether her home would be taken.

In fact, she never had real cause for concern because a more specific map shows planners intend to put the rail line right on 44th Street. But that map isn't generally available to the public. It is tucked inside the full regional public transportation plan, which can be bought at the authority's downtown Phoenix office for $35.

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