Trainplotting

Transit-plan backers say they see a bus in your future--so how come they've been working on the railroad?

Your leaders want you to trust them so badly you can almost feel their collective hands reaching out to you in gestures of beckoning. Either that or they're fumbling clumsily in your pocket for your wallet.

That's because they are asking you to go to the polls on September 9 and give them money. Lots of money. In perpetuity.

They're asking you to approve a half-cent sales tax--a potential $4 billion over 20 years--to pay for something which has always proven a tough sell: They're asking you to give them money for mass transit.

Your leaders know you've felt betrayed in the past. They agree that money raised for transportation has had a strange impotency.

Take the freeway tax, which many of you voted for back in 1985. It was supposed to build 230 miles of freeways by 2005. To date, only 30 miles of precious pavement have been wrung from that tax.

Still smarting from the freeway debacle, you went to the polls in 1989 and gave a big raspberry to their fanciful $8.5 billion plan to build a monorail-like transit system.

When they asked you for money again in 1994 to finish the freeway work, you said "no way," and they had to go and lick their wounds. (What you might not have realized that time around was that you also said no to such mass-transit features as buses and trains. You'd be forgiven if you didn't know that--they didn't make a big deal out of it.)

Now they're back. Only this time, they're not trying to confuse you by mixing freeways with buses and trains. This time, they'll be content with buses and trains.

Although they don't seem that eager to talk about trains.
They're handling the train issue like a case of sweaty dynamite on a hot afternoon. They know that if they get excited, or nervous, and jiggle it just a little, it could make an awful mess.

And an expensive mess. In 1994, transit backers spent almost $1.5 million trying to convince you to show them the money. And they know that many of you may be a little skeptical about trains.

Actually, "skeptical" is not a strong enough word. They know that some of you double over laughing at the thought of a commuter train or light-rail system in Phoenix, where the car is king. You're more likely to see a schooner than a train.

That's why they'd rather you believed that this tax is not about trains. It's about buses. Four hundred of them, to be exact.

It's all spelled out in the Phoenix Citizens' Transit Plan.
Though it covers just two sides of a single sheet of paper, the city's plan envisions a boggling array of buses performing mind-numbing feats of human conveyance.

There are sleek express buses plowing through the city's congested rush-hour streets while sporty dial-a-ride models swoop up to customers' doors to shuttle them to shopping malls.

In fact, seven of the plan's 10 recommendations deal with new buses--how they would allow the city to double the frequency of runs during peak times, from every half-hour to every 15 minutes; to extend hours of operation until midnight during the week and on Saturdays; to offer service from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays.

That's all very nice, but where are the trains?
There, at the bottom of the sheet--under the header "Other Transportation Systems":

"Begin study and planning for other transportation systems, such as light rail and/or regional commuter rail."

Anticipating your skepticism, the Phoenix City Council voted to add the stipulation that ". . . the construction of any rail would begin only after full citizens' participation and review . . . and a public vote by the City Council."

Never mind that all votes by the council are supposed to occur in public anyway. Or that the sitting council has no power to tell a future council how to spend, which means this council or the next could decide that rail construction should begin almost any time.

"At least with the ballpark tax, you knew you were getting a ballpark, and by when," says John Semmens, chief number cruncher for a group called No New Taxes, one of two Libertarian-led groups opposing the tax. "With this, who knows?"

You could almost hear Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza's heels scuffing as he danced around the issue of trains during a June 12 radio interview.

"The citizens have actually told us they want buses, they want more service on Sundays, they want more left-turn arrows," Rimsza said.

But that's not what the transit backers' own studies say. They say that people queried chose trains first, buses second.

Rimsza, who declined to be interviewed for this story, added that past transit initiatives had failed because people felt they were being rammed down their throats by "a bunch of downtown types and business leaders."

That may be. But there is ample evidence that the most recent initiative is also being pushed by those very people.

Take Jerry Colangelo, who has made no secret of his support for the tax, or for his desire to one day see trains packed with Suns and Diamondbacks fans coasting into downtown Phoenix.

Or take the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce and its president, Valerie Manning, who heads pro-tax Keep Phoenix Moving, a powerful coalition of business leaders.

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