Trainplotting

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

A block north lies the squat bulk of the new Arizona Science Center. Much farther north is the shimmering profile of the copper-skinned Phoenix Public Library.

Manning points toward a downtown lot where luxury apartments are slated to go up. In a lot beside the Arizona Center, a new 24-screen movie theater is taking shape. When completed, moviegoers will be able to see a flick downtown for the first time since the Seventies.

The only thing marring this view of unchecked progress is that annoying scrim of haze obscuring the line where blue sky and brown horizon meet.

Today isn't even a bad day, in terms of air pollution.
In fact, Phoenix has just emerged from one of the city's best air-quality winters in recent memory, never once violating federal standards for carbon monoxide. That may prove a Pyrrhic victory, though, having as much to do with winter winds that wafted pollution out of the Valley as with anything else.

Manning discusses growth scenarios. She explains that if the Valley continues growing at its current rate, the population will double in 20 years.

"This region will continue to grow," she says with urgency. "Even as we build freeways, congestion and pollution will only worsen.

"Intuitively, people realize something has to be done before someone--the state, the feds--makes us."

Manning and her supporters say that unless the city takes the transit plunge, growth will soon outstrip air-quality improvements achieved through beefed-up vehicle-emissions testing, car-pooling, telecommuting and cleaner fuels.

The "easy stuff" has already been done, Manning says. Now, it's time to make a true commitment--even though that commitment will, backers acknowledge, bring about at most a 3 percent reduction in air pollution.

But environmentalists, who long have advocated for increased transit spending, agree that doing nothing is not an option.

David Baron heads the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. Over the past 10 years, he has filed almost a dozen lawsuits against the state and the Environmental Protection Agency over the Valley's grimy air.

Baron says that as air quality worsens, industry would likely bear the brunt, through significantly tougher emissions standards. Baron points to California, which has adopted some of the toughest industrial-emissions standards in the country.

Such standards, transit backers say, would stunt the Valley's growth.
Baron says the feds could conceivably impose moratoriums on driving--something they have not yet tried anywhere.

Still, Baron says, all the talk of federal saber-rattling and reduced growth and commercial dysfunction misses the point.

"We're talking about a quality-of-life issue here," he says. "You have old people going to the hospital because they can't breathe, you have people being told to stay indoors because of pollution. And all major air pollutants are heavily attributable to cars. With every car you get off the street, you get a benefit."

Baron also points out that Phoenix has one of the worst public transit systems in terms of service of any similarly sized city.

If passed by voters, the transit tax will represent the first time Phoenix has had the benefit of dedicated funding sources for mass transit. A similar tax will go on the September 9 ballot in Scottsdale.

Manning enjoys the strong backing of Phoenix City Hall--the transit plan's detractors would say too strong.

Several weeks ago, David Schwartz, Mayor Rimsza's administrative assistant, took a leave of absence to help run the Keep Phoenix Moving campaign.

And Manning has hired the political consulting firm of Grossfeld/Severns Inc. to manage the campaign. Christa Severns, the firm's executive vice president, is married to Phil Gordon, Rimsza's chief of staff.

Many of those backing the initiative are the same pro-business Republicans who traditionally yelp loudest whenever a new tax looms.

Still, they're dutifully passing the hat to promote this tax hike. If the past two (failed) transit initiatives are any indication, some of the larger corporate donors, like Phoenix Newspapers Inc., publishers of the Arizona Republic, and Arizona Public Service Company, the state's largest utility, will pump in nearly $100,000 each.

One of those urging business leaders to give 'til it hurts is Valley sports mogul Jerry Colangelo. An April 28 letter signed by Colangelo and APS director Bill Post and sent to Valley business leaders reads:

"To communicate the importance of this ballot proposition and to be successful in the election, we will need to have a robust campaign. That is why we, and our community, need your help--now. Business and corporate support and leadership are essential to the success of this campaign."

The only dissenting voice at the chamber belonged to Marv Cronberg, head of the Arizona Automobile Dealers' Association, an industry lobbying group.

In April, Cronberg made headlines by pulling the association out of the chamber in protest of its support for the transit tax, saying it will be unfairly borne by car buyers. Cronberg also said a revamped transit system never would have an appreciable impact on air pollution or traffic congestion.

Cronberg has since resigned as head of the association. He could not be reached for comment.

Mike Denea, the AADA's general counsel, says Cronberg resigned for personal reasons, but observers on both sides of the issue hint that he may have been pressured to go. If that's true, it's an indication of the influence of the people backing the transit initiative.

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