Traffic Thicket

Will Phoenix voters finally get onboard a transit plan?

"This is not our last chance," says Fenger. "The day after the election, we can start work to get in front of voters a vote to increase taxes for buses."

Members of the anti-rail group aren't unified on the bus issue, however. Semmens suggests privatizing the bus system rather than throwing more tax money at it.

Proponents say the transit plan must be two-edged. Buses alone won't ease congested freeways, they argue. Tevlin says it takes 70 buses and 70 drivers to transport 4,000 people along a section of freeway, for example. Those same people could be carried in 10 three-car light rail trains, driven by 10 operators. In some parts of Phoenix, the trains could operate down the middle of a street or freeway. In other places, a lack of median space means adjacent parallel tracks would have to be built.

SkyTran promoters say their futuristic system  --  which exists only in theory  --  will allow travelers to zoom overhead at speeds of 100 mph.
illustrations courtesy of SkyTran
SkyTran promoters say their futuristic system -- which exists only in theory -- will allow travelers to zoom overhead at speeds of 100 mph.

But light rail without convenient, dependable connector buses won't work. People would be more likely to use the train if they could hop on a bus in their neighborhood that takes them to a rail station. And downtown workers, for example, wouldn't want to be dropped off at a Central Avenue light-rail station, then have to hoof it for a mile to get to their office. They'll need dependable, frequent connecting buses.

Selinda Border, a member of the Transit 2000 steering committee, says she became a light rail convert after visiting Dallas. A resident of the historic Willo Neighborhood and a board member of that neighborhood association, Border was worried about local light rail plans. She and others in her neighborhood feared that the Central Avenue track would bring noise, vibrations and crime to their area.

So when she visited Dallas with other members of the steering committee, she got off the train and explored the surrounding neighborhoods, asking people how the rail had affected them. She says that the trains are quiet and cause no vibrations. Crime hasn't increased, and people told her they loved the convenience of having a train station nearby.

Now, she has become an advocate of the Phoenix plan. "I wish we would put everyone in Phoenix on a light rail car. They would see the benefits."

The Dallas system, with its mix of services (including better bus service and van service for the disabled), is comparable to the one before Phoenix voters. Even the history of Dallas' transit struggle is a parallel to the Phoenix experience.

Over the years, as the Dallas metro area continued to grow and the air pollution problems worsened, wary voters turned down efforts to fund mass transit improvements there. Officials were forced to find smaller projects that appealed to citizens.

Roger Snoble, president of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system (DART), says even after a 1 cent sales tax was finally approved, no one was certain whether people would abandon their cars and trucks to try a bus, light rail or commuter train.

But in 1998, a year after the 20-mile light rail line was finished, overall transit ridership jumped by 44 percent -- from 48.5 million to 70 million passengers a year. (Now, about 28 million passengers a year use Phoenix transit.)

The fledgling light rail system continues to be a resounding success, with ridership (now at 38,000 a day) growing each year and far exceeding expectations. Dallas is adding another 21 miles of light rail into neighboring communities. And Dallas-area residents are also using other components of the transit plan -- including an expanded bus system and a new diesel-powered commuter train.

DART records indicate bus ridership (about 159,000 each weekday) has increased steadily each month for the past two years after six years of declining ridership.

Polls show overwhelming support for the system among riders and nonriders. A Dallas Morning News poll in October revealed that about 81 percent of Dallas-area residents believe the system is worth the tax. Among riders, that approval rate climbed to 92 percent. Community referendums to decide whether to renew participation in the system have passed by a 2-to-1 margin. And other cities near Dallas are considering joining the 13 members of the Dallas-hubbed system.

Honored by the American Public Transit Association and touted as a national model for improving urban transit systems, DART has succeeded because it is a comprehensive plan. "It saves people time and money," says Snoble.

He says officials have learned that affordability is the key factor in getting new riders to try the bus or rail. In downtown Dallas, he says, parking fees can cost between $80 and $150 a month, while a monthly DART pass costs $30. And many employers are offering lower-cost annual passes as part of their benefits plan. (In Phoenix, Brian Kearney says, downtown parking rates are cheaper, averaging about $60 to $70 a month; still, he says, transit passes will offer a savings to commuters.)

Snoble says the main leg of the light rail system going into downtown Dallas carries 25 percent of the commuters.

Studies are just beginning to determine the exact effect of the new transit system on traffic congestion and air pollution. So far, regional air pollution seems to be about the same, while air quality along the main transit thoroughfares seems to be improving, according to Snoble and Barbara Leaman of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the American Lung Association.

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