Trainplotting

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

Transit backers seem equally mystified by some of the suggestions proffered up by Semmens and his camp.

Ed Fox, former head of the state Department of Environmental Quality and now a vice president at APS, says Semmens' fondness for such pay-as-you-go proposals as congestion pricing would only squeeze out lower-income drivers during peak travel periods.

Other of Semmens' suggestions, like telecommuting and staggered work weeks, have already been tried, with limited success, Fox adds.

As for Semmens' suggestion that more freeways be built, Fox says, the days of inner-city freeway construction are over, as signaled by the plight of the Paradise Parkway, an east-west midtown freeway that was shot down by activists after ADOT had spent more than $50 million to acquire right of way.

"We will not build another inner-city, or cross-town, highway," Fox says. "Which begs the question: If you can't build more cross-town highways, then how will you move more people across town?"

Semmens and the antitaxers have also argued that all mass-transit systems, including buses, are highly subsidized, with riders often paying just a fraction of the true cost of their rides.

It's a fact that Manning concedes. But, she adds: "How profitable do you think the libraries are? How profitable are the freeways, for that matter?"

Even so, with gasoline cheaper than bottled water, with Ford recently announcing plans to unveil a lumbering, three-ton sport-utility vehicle a full foot longer than the vaunted Chevrolet Suburban, how can Manning and the folks behind the initiative ever hope to lure people onto trains and buses?

Manning's own paperwork describes a lengthy, uphill battle when it comes to doing away with our "auto-centric behavior."

". . . creating a transit cure in the Valley is a challenge that will last several generations," reads one Morrison Institute report commissioned by transit backers. "It would be naive to believe that large segments of the population will suddenly begin saying 'enough' to auto travel out of a deep sense of community.

"The reality is that Phoenix residents, like most Americans, are 'consumers' first and foremost, not neighbors or citizens."

Still, how much congestion and pollution can transit alleviate? The numbers, at least for other similarly sized cities spending what Phoenix is contemplating on their transit systems, don't sound encouraging: Portland, which spends around $250 million annually on its system, only captured 2.6 percent of urban travel in 1994; Houston spent $297 million for less than 2 percent; and San Diego spent $181 million for 1.6 percent.

Fox concedes that ridership figures for most of the country's newer transit systems don't sound encouraging. But, he adds, it took 50 years for America's addiction to the automobile to reach current levels.

"To think that you're going to change that culture in a year or two, I think, is flawed," Fox says. "As the cost of driving increases, you're going to see more and more people choosing transit."

While both sides can flash numbers supporting their arguments, it seems clear that only one--Keep Phoenix Moving--likely will have the luxury of packaging and carrying its message to voters.

And the fact that the issue will be decided during a city election--traditionally the lowest of the low, in terms of turnout--should play into the hands of those backing the tax.

Gary Fallon heads No Transit Taxes, the other Libertarian-led group that has organized to oppose the tax hike in Phoenix.

"Generally, when government looks for money, it seeks the low turnout," Fallon says, pointing out that school-bond elections enjoying minuscule 5 percent turnouts generally win by two-to-one margins. At elections with turnouts of 50 percent or higher, Fallon adds, "the swing goes the other way."

Fallon and his allies form a motley contrast to the pro-transit forces arrayed against them. They will fight their campaign without benefit of paid consultants, insider connections or generous corporate support, a fact that the boyishly earnest Fallon readily acknowledges.

So far, according to campaign finance reports filed June 30, Keep Phoenix Moving has raised more than $48,000--an amount that is sure to soar as the election nears.

APS threw in $25,000. Additional $5,000 donations came from the Phoenix Convention and Visitors' Bureau, the firefighters union and downtown real estate mogul Jim Kaufman. And you can bet that most of the big money isn't even on the table yet.

"It is a sort of David-versus-Goliath scenario," concedes Fallon, who opposes further government subsidization of mass transportation.

Already, according to a KAET-TV Channel 8 poll taken last week, 70 percent of Valley voters support the initiative. That figure jibes with a poll taken last month by the Behavior Research Center, which found that 68 percent of voters surveyed would support the tax.

Still, Fallon and friends can take heart from a warning in the survey that "if a lively debate over the measure breaks out, the results this fall could be much closer."

They can also take heart from Jane White, who recalls how she and a small gaggle of activists managed to defeat the Valley's powers that be in the Proposition 400 battle back in 1994.

"They spent more money on their election-night party than we did on our entire campaign," White remembers with a laugh.

White, a Scottsdale resident, has followed the transit initiative closely there, even taking part in meetings to craft the ballot language. She successfully introduced a provision allowing the people--not the council--to decide when to proceed on rail.

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