Trainplotting

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

Maricopa County voters have passed judgment on transit issues twice before.
In 1994, they rejected Proposition 400, a Valleywide initiative calling for a half-cent sales-tax boost to benefit freeway construction and regional public transit projects.

And in 1989, voters overwhelmingly rejected ValTrans, an $8.5 billion proposal to build 130 miles of elevated, monorail-like lines throughout the Valley.

Now, transit backers intend to divide and conquer, taking their case to individual cities. There are indications the strategy may prove infinitely more effective.

Tempe already has embraced the concept of a beefed-up transit system, enacting its own half-cent sales tax. If Phoenix and Scottsdale follow suit, some say it's only a matter of time before other municipalities fall into line--a fact disputed by the antitax forces.

"Effectively, 11 percent of the voters registered in Tempe decided the outcome," notes Semmens. "It's hardly a ringing mandate worthy of inspiring a wave of imitation across the urban region."

If approved by voters, the total sales-tax rate in Phoenix would hit 7.3 percent. In Scottsdale, 7.35 percent. Unlike the quarter-cent tax levied on Maricopa County residents in 1994 to fund construction of Bank One Ballpark, and which is set to expire next spring, the new transit taxes would never go away.

Manning says the Proposition 400 defeat was a learning experience.
The main problem with Proposition 400 was that it tried to piggyback transit onto freeways--a critical mistake given voter angst over the snail's pace of freeway construction.

With Proposition 400, Manning and her backers largely allowed the dialogue about the initiative to be dictated by the opposition, refusing to even meet them for debates.

Still, Proposition 400 was not a vote against transit, but a vote against increased freeway taxes, explains transportation Yberactivist Jane White, who led the battle against the tax.

White became involved in transportation issues during the late 1980s, when the Arizona Department of Transportation announced plans to build a road through her neighborhood. In the time since, she has amassed knowledge of things transport-related that rivals that of any paid consultant.

"Transit wasn't even an issue with Proposition 400," explains White. "In fact, we barely even discussed transit. Instead, it was, 'Reform before taxes--do not give this bunch any additional money because they'll waste it, just like they did with the first freeway tax.'"

Manning is quick to point out that Proposition 400 lost by "only four points" throughout the Valley. In fact, Scottsdale voters narrowly favored it.

Though critical of what she sees as essentially a blank check for the city councils, White can't fault Manning and her backers from a strategic standpoint.

ValTrans was too hot. Proposition 400 was too cold. This time, White says, transit backers seem intent on getting it just right.

If that happens, much of that credit must go to Manning, who helped develop the transit plan by organizing a series of 16 forums throughout the Valley. She dubbed these groups a "Committee of 600," but the term is somewhat misleading. Citizens did not sit around and dissect transit issues; instead, they were questioned by researchers from the Morrison Institute, a policy think tank based at Arizona State University.

According to data provided by the institute, forum attendees felt the Valley needed to move forward on transit to improve air quality, relieve congestion and help those who cannot afford cars get to work.

The institute, according to its report, also found that, in order of preference, people favored light rail, beefed-up bus service and commuter trains as means to achieving those ends. In Phoenix, the survey results were passed to a committee made up of 21 citizens, along with Phoenix councilwoman and transit booster Peggy Bilsten.

That committee was chaired by Manning.
On April 29, Manning presented the committee's recommendations to the Phoenix City Council, which approved them unanimously after including provisions to provide free bus service to seniors, the disabled and the handicapped.

The plan says nothing about where rail, or any other transit assets, for that matter, might go--a big change from the days of ValTrans, when planners spelled out the exact routes for the massive elevated-rail system, which would have slashed through neighborhoods.

Pat Cantelme, a captain in the Phoenix Fire Department and head of the firefighters' union who sat in the steering committee with Manning and Bilsten, says that the closest the committee came to making recommendations about where rail or any other transit assets should go was to suggest "corridors."

"We said, instead of it becoming political either today or down the road, it should follow the heaviest traffic corridors," Cantelme says. "For the most part, that's where the freeways are now."

There is one corridor, however, that wouldn't jump out at anyone, at least not based on traffic counts: downtown Phoenix (where there are big sports venues, big hotels, convention facilities) to downtown Tempe (one of the only areas of the Valley where visitors might go to mill around).

Tourism is a huge industry in Arizona, and that's why this corridor is considered important.

Currently, the two areas are separated by the Salt River, the Tempe Buttes and Sky Harbor International Airport. They are connected by arterial streets, the Red Mountain Freeway, I-10, but perhaps most directly by Union Pacific Railroad tracks. City officials have said they'd be interested in developing the rail link with the aid of federal matching funds.

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