Traffic Thicket

Will Phoenix voters finally get onboard a transit plan?

Eugene Pulliam, publisher of the Arizona Republic and (now defunct) Phoenix Gazette, campaigned against the proposed freeway system during the 1970s. He believed highways would divide the city. People still blame Pulliam for setting back construction of Valley freeways by at least a decade.

After Pulliam's death (and a new editorial stance at the newspapers), voters began approving highway projects, most notably the 1985 measure that created a half-cent sales tax to build 231 miles of freeway. But shady deals in which speculators bought land along freeway routes and sold it to the government at inflated prices drove up the cost. The freeway plan soured. And so did the voters' trust in government.

But as more newcomers drove into town, our air got more polluted -- with particulates and carbon monoxide and ozone. In the 1970s, the federal government began cracking down on air-quality violations in Phoenix. And city leaders, who had entered into a partnership with the private, struggling city bus system, realized they needed to find alternate methods of transportation to ease congestion and cut pollution.

Phoenix city councilwoman Peggy Bilsten chaired the Transit 2000 citizens' committee and is heading the election campaign.
Paolo Vescia
Phoenix city councilwoman Peggy Bilsten chaired the Transit 2000 citizens' committee and is heading the election campaign.
A light rail system in Dallas  --  similar to the one proposed for Phoenix  --  is exceeding ridership expectations and scoring high on opinion polls.
A light rail system in Dallas -- similar to the one proposed for Phoenix -- is exceeding ridership expectations and scoring high on opinion polls.

ValTrans, a grandiose plan to fund a regional mass-transit system with another half-cent sales tax increase, would have built 103 miles of elevated light rail, added 1,500 new buses and begun a commuter train between Chandler and Phoenix. The price tag was $8.4 billion. Voters, still smarting from what they viewed as a freeway tax betrayal, rejected the plan by a 3-1 margin in 1989.

Two more transit-tax attempts failed. The most recent one, in 1997, would have created a permanent tax to raise billions of dollars for improved bus service and $160 million to explore light rail. Before the election, public opinion polls showed the plan ahead by a healthy margin. But opponents branded it a sneaky attempt to force light rail on the public. And the heads of the Arizona Department of Transportation and Department of Environmental Quality, acting under the direction of then-governor Fife Symington, came out against the tax days before the election, claiming it would hurt freeway construction plans and have little effect on air pollution. (Hours after that press conference, Symington was convicted by a federal jury of fraud. His case is on appeal, his former directors were replaced. Governor Jane Hull says she won't get involved in local issues.)

The measure, voted on by about 111,000 Phoenicians, failed by 122 votes.

Jack Tevlin remembers driving down a Valley freeway the day after the election and seeing an electronic billboard warning that there was a high-pollution advisory. "Use mass transit," it said.

While Transit 2000 has the backing of business and real estate interests, the Sierra Club and the Arizona Lung Association, the opposition is led by the same two people who helped defeat Phoenix's last plan.

De-Rail the Tax chairman Becky Fenger is an East Valley Tribune columnist who made news when she successfully lobbied the Legislature to keep Freon legal in the state despite an international ban on the substance. She says her group has just a few dozen members. It has a Web site ( but almost no money. City campaign finance reports show the committee has raised about $9,900 -- compared to more than $1.4 million raised by the proponents. Fenger says her group can't afford expensive mailings or commercials, so it has been concentrating on public debates to get the message out.

John Semmens is a state Department of Transportation employee who has written anti-transit plan reports for his Laissez Faire Institute and for the Goldwater Institute, crusading against using tax money for mass transit. While he is most critical of the light rail component of the plan, Semmens has campaigned just as vociferously against transit plans that had little to do with light rail. Last spring, for example, he helped defeat the Chandler transit tax, which would have raised nearly $124 million to improve that city's buses and street system -- with only about $2 million devoted to light rail exploration.

Semmens' and Fenger's allies include a few Libertarians, a Tempe city council candidate and a candidate for Tempe mayor. Members of the group complain loudly and often, saying this: They are not against mass transit; they are against subsidizing buses and expensive light rail systems that people won't use. They say city officials ignored them during the citizen review process, and that transit proponents joined bus and rail items in one plan simply to trick bus supporters into voting for the money-sucking light rail plan.

They contend the city is ignoring other ways to get motorists out of their cars, including telecommuting, putting a halt to construction of new parking lots and contracting with private jitney bus companies to give better neighborhood service. They say the planners are looking at outdated or unproven methods when they should be supporting better new methods of transporting folks, like the privately funded SkyTran system.

They say Phoenix could improve traffic and cut pollution merely by expanding the bus system. Instead, they say, officials are jumping on the light rail bandwagon just to get federal dollars earmarked for new light rail systems.

And to some extent, that's true. City officials say if there is no voter-approved transit tax in place, Phoenix will lose out on federal money that will be doled out this spring, falling five to 10 years behind on transit projects while other cities snag the federal matching funds for new rail projects.

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