Traffic Thicket

Will Phoenix voters finally get onboard a transit plan?

"We have a very defendable plan now," says Jack Tevlin, the deputy city manager in charge of transportation issues for Phoenix. "There's no need to hide it."

The tax, proponents say, is fair and affordable. Phoenix does not tax groceries so it would not apply to food purchases, which hits the poor the hardest. The tax amounts to 4 cents for every $10 worth of nonfood items bought -- about $50 a year for a family of four, according to the Phoenix budget and research department.

The proposal, transit backers say, has accountability factored into it. The tax has a 20-year limit, although city officials can seek a continuation when it runs out. If the plan doesn't work, voters can end the tax by rejecting the extension at the polls.

Deputy City Manager Jack Tevlin says Phoenix needs to pass the transit tax to get federal matching funds for new light rail projects.
Paolo Vescia
Deputy City Manager Jack Tevlin says Phoenix needs to pass the transit tax to get federal matching funds for new light rail projects.
Becky Fenger, who helped defeat the 1997 transit tax and now heads the De-Rail the Tax committee, is a vigorous protester.
Paolo Vescia
Becky Fenger, who helped defeat the 1997 transit tax and now heads the De-Rail the Tax committee, is a vigorous protester.

Here's what's promised:

• Improved service. About 65 percent of the total money -- $3.6 billion -- would be spent improving the city's lame bus system. Within weeks after the vote, buses would begin running longer hours, from 5 a.m. to midnight Mondays through Saturdays, and from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays and holidays. Frequency will increase and new routes will be added as more buses are ordered. Some "limited-stop" routes would be tested during commute hours, meaning buses would stop on heavily traveled streets only at major intersections. First to get that service would be Bell and Camelback roads.

• More, cleaner buses. The current fleet of 350 buses, some of which are years past their recommended 12- to 15-year life spans, will grow to 500. Older buses would be retired and new buses, like many already in the city's fleet, would burn cleaner natural gas in compliance with state law.

• Better express bus service. Hours and availability of this system would be improved, using the HOV lanes on the freeways for nonstop buses from Deer Valley, Paradise Valley, Ahwatukee, Maryvale and South Central into downtown. Gridlocked Ahwatukee, with four morning and four afternoon express trips now, would be the big winner in this plan; its bus service would grow to 20 morning and 20 afternoon trips, and buses would run longer hours.

• Neighborhood mini-bus service. Smaller vehicles would circulate through neighborhoods to take people to bus or rail lines or other spots. Again, Ahwatukee gets the first relief, with two demonstration projects connecting commuters there with park-and-ride lots.

• Expanded Dial-A-Ride service. The fleet of Dial-A-Ride vehicles, for seniors and the disabled who call for curb-to-curb service, would increase from 60 to 100 vehicles in the first year. Hours and days of service would be expanded.

• More left-turn arrows and more bus pullouts. The plan promises to gradually add left-turn arrows at every major intersection in the city. Five hundred more bus pullouts would be built (there are 400 already).

• Additional bike lanes. The plan anticipates the construction of 100 more miles of bike lanes in the city.

• Light rail. The most controversial part of the plan calls for $1.6 billion for the Phoenix hub of a light rail line envisioned as a Valleywide rail system. Powered by overhead electric wires, the 150-person street-level passenger cars would transport riders along the most heavily traveled corridors in the Valley. The transit tax would pay for the first leg of the 24-mile system, from Sky Harbor Airport through downtown to Christown Mall, by 2006. Tempe and Mesa already have money set aside for light rail, and proponents hope they'll be ready to connect by 2006 as well. That would extend the line from Christown to downtown Mesa. Another leg would extend to Metrocenter by 2010; as much as 10 more miles would be added by 2016 along a route to be determined later.

• The creation of a citizen oversight committee. Details would be worked out later, but this committee would guide the transit plan over the next two decades.

City officials are trumpeting the inadequacy of the current transit system in an effort to gain support for Transit 2000. They note that Phoenix is the sixth largest city in the U.S., but ranks 35th in terms of the quality of transit. They say the city doesn't have the money to improve it. And that we are sorely behind the times, spending the least amount on transit service than any comparable U.S. city. Further, we are the only large city in the country without a special tax just for mass transit, meaning outlays for transit improvement must compete with other general fund budget items, like police and fire protection, according to Tevlin.

There are studies and surveys to support these contentions. But you don't really need them to show just how lacking the system is.

Anyone who has waited forever in sweltering heat for a bus, tried to figure out how to get to work for a graveyard shift or home after a swing shift, or spent three hours on various buses to go from downtown Phoenix to Mesa knows. Anyone who has been stuck behind a diesel-spewing bus in traffic knows.

Phoenix grew too big too fast. And while Valley leaders (with financial incentives from the federal government) concentrated on building freeways to move cars from here to there, they ignored the transit system.

During the boom years (beginning in the mid-1950s when the population nearly tripled in five years), residents poured into the Phoenix metropolitan area, bringing with them their cars and virtually ignoring the transit options that existed. City leaders feared becoming another Los Angeles. In 1960, the same firm that designed Los Angeles' freeways drew up a plan for Phoenix. But the city shied away from building highways, hoping instead that the grid system of straight, broad streets would accommodate traffic.

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