Traffic Thicket

Will Phoenix voters finally get onboard a transit plan?


Because the Valley is car-friendly. We've built freeways to accommodate all those vehicles (about 2.4 million registered vehicles in Maricopa County, according to the state Motor Vehicle Division, which adds up to more than one per registered driver). The federal government is insisting Phoenix clean up its air, but the city still falls short of federal standards.

Instead, we continue to build parking lots downtown, making it even easier for drivers. In the past five years, according to the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, the number of spaces has increased by 5,000 spaces in three new garages, to about 30,000 parking spots total in lots, garages and on streets.

Boarding stations for the proposed SkyTran system  --  called portals  --  are designed to avoid disrupting the flow of pod traffic.
illustrations courtesy of SkyTran
Boarding stations for the proposed SkyTran system -- called portals -- are designed to avoid disrupting the flow of pod traffic.
Phoenix's electric-powered light rail cars would run in freeway medians or adjacent to highways.
Phoenix's electric-powered light rail cars would run in freeway medians or adjacent to highways.

Brian Kearney, executive director of the partnership, says Phoenix has more plentiful, affordable parking downtown than other comparable cities.

"We have more parking on a per-square-foot basis than probably any other downtown around," he says.

The reason? There are no reasonable transit alternatives to get people into downtown. Cars are the easiest way to go. So new office buildings and sports stadiums must have new parking spaces in their plans, he says.

City officials say Phoenix has one of the worst public transit systems in the country, based on the size of the fleet, ridership and amount of money spent on service. As a result, the buses run limited hours and aren't readily available in many parts of town. And Phoenix is the only major city in the world without bus service on Sundays.

People in Phoenix don't want to ride buses. Many of the buses are aging, so breakdowns or air-conditioning problems make public transit downright unpleasant. And there's the social stigma; in the West, riding the bus is seen as a prerogative of the lower class, something for people who can't afford a car.

Still, other cities are finding that people will ride the bus or a train, given a good system. In Dallas, a city similar to Phoenix that put in place a system very much like what Phoenix is proposing, ridership has far exceeded city officials' projections.

The problems caused by a poor public transportation system will only get worse. Phoenix's population is expected to grow by 600,000 -- up from the current 1.2 million -- over the next 20 years. One study commissioned by the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce says the number of registered vehicles in the Valley is expected to double by 2025 (to nearly 6 million). And the Regional Public Transportation Authority predicts those cars and trucks will be traveling twice as many miles as they do now -- up to 118 million miles every day. Without any extra mass-transit options, traffic would slow to an average crawl of about 15 mph, according to a study by the Texas Transportation Institute, which conducts national studies of urban traffic congestion.

Weixing Zhu, an Arizona State University post-doctoral research assistant who studies urban development and air quality, says if that were to occur, air quality would get even worse because cars idling in congested traffic spew out more pollutants than moving vehicles.

Already, a new Rocky Mountain poll shows, a record number of Valley residents blame a variety of health woes on air pollution. And, in a future without traffic relief, Zhu says, people simply won't be able to live on one side of town and work on the other.

"People's tolerance levels have a limit," he says. "Eventually, there will be nothing you can do. If you want to have clean air, you have to pay more for that."

Phoenix's answer to all this is Transit 2000, a proposed four-tenths-of-a-cent sales tax to pay for better bus service and the beginnings of a light rail system. It's a comprehensive program, one that expands bus hours, boosts the express bus service, improves Dial-A-Ride for the elderly and handicapped, and builds the first leg of what would be a pollution-free Valleywide light rail system.

Officials say the tax would cost the average Phoenix household about $50 a year. The tax is crucial to garnering an estimated $600 million in federal matching funds that would help pay for the light rail component of the plan.

Proponents call it "The People's Plan" because they started with a citizens committee, held open houses, polled residents and tried to incorporate citizens' concerns and needs when they crafted it.

Now they need to convince The People to ignore their pro-car bias, their anti-bus mindset and their uncertainty about light rail.

In 1997, The People rejected Phoenix's last transit proposal. The measure proposed a permanent half-cent sales tax and promised to improve the bus system and begin planning for a light rail system. But voters weren't given maps of new bus routes or any information about whether an improved transit system would matter in their lives. It amounted to, officials realize now, a blank check taken on faith -- something voters weren't willing to hand over.

This time, Transit 2000 proponents are laying a very specific plan before voters. They have been touting the $4.8 billion proposal at presentations and debates before civic groups and neighborhood associations and on radio talk shows. They've made the rounds of newspapers, TV and radio news programs. They have posted details on the Internet ( and have included colorful maps in mailings to registered voters. Maps even appear in the publicity pamphlets and on the ballots themselves.

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