Off the Track
One inch could be all that decides whether Valley voters are willing to tax themselves for thirty years to build the country's most ambitious mass transit system.
That inch--raising public suspicion Valley-wide--is how mapmakers for the Regional Public Transportation Authority show mile-wide "corridors" in which they want to build a 103-mile light rail train system. Those widely distributed maps are key tools in a campaign to convince voters to go to the polls March 28 and impose a half-cent sales tax for the next three decades to build the ValTrans system.
But when the public complains those enormous corridors are too vague, transit officials say they just can't be more specific. And they beg for trust, promising plenty of public input before the final routes are chosen--after the March vote.
But New Times has found voters have cause for suspicion:
* The Phoenix City Council already has cut a deal with Central Avenue business owners to keep the elevated rail system off that street. Instead, New Times has discovered, the trains will likely run along First and Second Avenues and through established neighborhoods.
* Although the bulk of the ValTrans system will be within Phoenix, the city council has yet to appoint a citywide citizens' group to recommend specific routes--something it won't do until after the election. Yet three other Valley cities already have specific recommendations from their citizens' committees, and the Mesa City Council has already approved the Mesa route.
* Contrary to the vagueness of the mile-wide corridors, other maps show transit planners know where they intend to build parts of the rail lines, down to a mere 100 feet.
* In the Arcadia area of Phoenix, transit planners are trying to undo the recommendations of the local village committee, which prefers to keep the line away from established neighborhoods and the irrigation canals.
These findings add fuel to already existing suspicions that voters are not being told the whole story, yet are being asked to fund the $8.5 billion system. Many worry that voters will decide they have too little information and will reject ValTrans, which also includes nearly 1,200 new buses.
But transit officials seem unmoved by the familiar concern of citizens who show up at public meetings demanding to know if their homes will be taken. Worse yet is the fear their homes won't be taken but they'll end up living next door to a two-story concrete pier with trains running every five minutes from 5 a.m. until midnight.
Even when confronted with these findings, transit officials maintain this kind of specificity isn't necessary for voters. And when the routing along Central Avenue is questioned--the "spine" of the entire transit system--officials try to rewrite history and deny what happened.
IT'S NOT A QUESTION of time.
Transit planners began working on the rail system back in 1985 when Maricopa County voters approved a half-cent increase in the sales tax to fund a massive freeway system. That same vote also set up the regional authority to plan a Valleywide mass transit system--an admission that freeways alone would solve neither the traffic nor air pollution problems. Regional transit director Larry Miller says his staff studied where people live, where they work and where they want to go by high-speed transit. The result was an $8.5 billion transit system of light rail and buses that would be financed largely by a half-cent sales tax. A whole list of elected and business leaders has lined up behind ValTrans, calling its completion crucial to the future of the Valley.
But even after all the studies, transit officials say they are still not sure exactly where the system will go.
The result is the mile-wide corridors on the map. "If we could have been more precise, we would have," Miller contends. He maintains the maps are a more honest way of telling voters there is no guarantee of knowing just where this rail system will go, particularly for those segments that won't be built before the turn of the century. But what about the first 49 miles of the system that will be built within the next eleven years--the line from Glendale through central Phoenix to Tempe? Miller tries to sidestep the obvious--that in some cases, they do know but aren't telling--by saying his planners didn't have enough money to do the engineering studies necessary to be specific.
When pressed, however, Miller acknowledges that part of the reason voters were not given a map showing the real routes was purely aesthetics. "It didn't graphically show the scope of the project," Miller says, suggesting that if the lines on the map weren't big and bold, voters wouldn't see the system as grandiose enough to justify the expense.
But aesthetics aside, voters haven't been impressed with the maps.
For example, the map shows that one train line will go somewhere between 40th and 48th Streets north from Sky Harbor Airport. That resulted in one woman, whose house is on 42nd Street, coming to a community meeting to question whether her home would be taken.
In fact, she never had real cause for concern because a more specific map shows planners intend to put the rail line right on 44th Street. But that map isn't generally available to the public. It is tucked inside the full regional public transportation plan, which can be bought at the authority's downtown Phoenix office for $35.
Miller contends it would be misleading to show the public the 44th Street plan because he doesn't know exactly where the route will be. "It could be 100 feet either way," he says, without acknowledging that 100 feet from any point on 44th Street is quite a bit different from a half mile on either side.
Do the maps buy needless enemies?
"We may have," Miller concedes. But he believes folks are willing to vote for something even if they don't have a specific location.
He cites last year's Phoenix bond election, which included funding for a new library to be built somewhere in the deck park area being constructed over the Papago Freeway between Third Avenue and Third Street. "Nobody said how high it was going to be and where it was going to be," he says. "But they approved it anyway."
Miller won't acknowledge a difference between erecting a single building in an area already torn up for a freeway and constructing a continuous concrete guideway for the trains, complete with stations every mile or so that are 80 feet wide and up to 300 feet long. Miller pooh-poohs suggestions that transit officials have hidden the real maps because they fear people living under or near the routes will vote no in March. "You assume that these people are going to be enemies," he says. "I don't."
To make his point, he brags that some neighborhoods are fighting to get ValTrans. For example, he says, there is the fight over whether a line of the rail system will serve the Sunnyslope area of north central Phoenix or the Paradise Valley section of northeast Phoenix. He points out that the North Mountain Village Planning Committee wants a rail line running up Seventh Street and Cave Creek Road to give access to the Sunnyslope area, while the Paradise Valley Village Planning Committee favors an alignment in its neighborhood following the proposed Squaw Peak Parkway northeast from 16th Street to 34th Street.
But Mike Milillo, who chairs the Paradise Valley committee, says the fight isn't over getting a train line to serve a neighborhood but to eliminate it. Nobody actually wants to live next to the trains, he stresses. "People want to know where it's going to be," he explains. "They don't want more houses taken for mass transit."
Milillo says the Squaw Peak routing makes sense because the state already is taking land and disrupting neighborhoods for the parkway. More important to some homeowners, Milillo continues, is that the rail system might help them convince the city to condemn their homes and get them away from the parkway.
Plans call for the Squaw Peak Parkway to run north from the Phoenix Mountain Preserve along a 34th Street alignment. Milillo says this will create a strip of single-family homes between 32nd Street--already a major roadway--and the parkway. If there is a rail system, however, he says the city might be willing to buy these homes for park-and-ride lots and other commercial development.
Yet transit director Miller says people really want to be adjacent to the rail lines and, particularly, the stations. He points to Atlanta, where large-scale commercial and high-density residential development sprung up around train stations. But, even business leaders have made it clear they want to be near the rail system, not sitting directly underneath it.
THE PROOF OF THE PUDDING is the strange story of Central Avenue.
Much of the reason for building the rail system is to get workers from the rest of the Valley to offices located along the four-mile high-rise stretch of Central Avenue running from downtown to Camelback Road. Transit officials admit this leg is essential to convince people to leave their cars at home and get to work by rapid transit.
Development along the city's main street has been somewhat schizophrenic. The city wants the high-rise businesses, yet says it wants to protect the long-established neighborhoods that lie just behind all this development.
The city council also wants to make Central Avenue something of a showplace, particularly as it is the backdrop for the nationally televised Fiesta Bowl parade. The first step was supposed to be the just-completed street-widening project, though that didn't exactly turn out the way it was planned. There's also an expensive beautification of Central in the works--with $8 million coming from the property owners bordering the street.
So the rail system must provide access to Central yet not detract from the overall appearance of the street.
Miller claims that property owners wanted the system right on Central Avenue to provide better service to their businesses. He told New Times it was his staff who convinced them it would be better just east or west of Central Avenue, running in what he calls a "seam between the commercial and residential district" just behind the office buildings and parking garages.
Miller's explanation sounds logical. And it shows, he adds, how transit planners work hand in hand with property owners, the way it's supposed to be. But that's not the way it really happened, New Times has found.
It was the business leaders along Central who decided this crucial issue; the same business leaders the city has asked to pony up millions for the beautification improvements. "If we put up the money for the [beautification] project, the transit is not going to go up Central Avenue," bluntly says Chris Cole, a major landowner along Central who's active in the Central Avenue Property Owners Association. He says the city had to decide which it wanted: Its "beautiful" Central (which the council likes to think of as Phoenix's Champs Elysees) or mass transit on Central.
Agreement comes from Jim Mahoney of Lincor, which owns considerable property along Central. "I believe in the system, and I believe in the benefits of the system," Mahoney says, but he doesn't see mass transit as compatible with beautification efforts.
Miller argues that the rail system will be aesthetically pleasing and will be barely noticeable. Mahoney responds that he has a hard time finding the beauty in an eighty-foot-wide train station running over Central Avenue that will be as long as a city block.
So what did the Central Avenue property owners do about their concerns? As association consultant Larry Landry puts it, they drew up a contract and marched it down to City Hall: They'll pay for the beautification if there's no overhead train on Central Avenue. In fact, the document--approved unanimously by the Phoenix City Council November 15--specifically states the only way the rail line will go on Central Avenue is if it's below ground.
Although the vote was taken in open session, it was just one item on a crowded agenda and went unnoticed by the public and other neighborhood groups who haven't been told such deals are possible. Even Bonnie Bartak, personal aide to Mayor Terry Goddard, didn't know about the council's deal until informed by New Times. And Miller persists in pretending there was no deal; that the route behind Central was a nifty idea that he had to sell to the high-rise developers. When confronted with the deal, Miller tries to note that nothing's a done deal until approved by the board of the regional authority--elected officials from all the Valley cities and the county. That board can override local council decisions, he notes. But when pressed, he admits that would force the authority to buy expensive right of way from the city instead of getting it for free, and that's not going to happen.
Yes, the authority could construct a below-ground system on Central Avenue, he says, but concedes that isn't economically feasible.
That supposedly leaves two options. But even one of them--constructing the line behind buildings on the east side of Central Avenue--already has been eliminated as impractical, according to Goddard.
So the real map of the transit route on Central isn't a mile-wide corridor; isn't even the two options other maps show. All that's really left is the plan to run the system just west of Central up First and Second Avenues. Those are only partial streets along much of Central. Where they don't exist, houses do. At least until the authority condemns them for the rail line.
Despite Miller's claim that there will be community involvement in locating routes, the only group actually involved in this crucial decision was owners of businesses and vacant land along Central Avenue. The people who own the homes behind those businesses were cut out of the deal making.
Other Valley cities don't seem to have the same problem.
In Tempe, for example, a transportation committee set up by the city council began studying options in late 1987. By last spring it was ready to recommend a specific route: The rail line should cross the Salt River just east of the Mill Avenue bridge and run next to the existing railroad tracks, behind Sun Devil Stadium and south along McAllister Avenue until it reaches Apache Boulevard, where it turns east toward Mesa.
Officially, this isn't a guarantee as the Tempe City Council has yet to adopt this recommendation. And councilmembers will not vote until engineering studies are done, something that won't be done unless--and until--voters approve the transit system. But the action by the committee pretty much assures that residential neighborhoods won't be affected. It also protects Mill Avenue, which just underwent its own $2.9 million beautification project.
The same process took place in Mesa, where, last fall, that community's transportation committee decided it wants the line from Tempe continued east along Apache Trail and Main Street. The Mesa City Council already has voted to approve this recommendation. And in Glendale, a citizens' committee has recommended the rail line go along Glendale Avenue instead of Bethany Home Road. Although these decisions can be found in the $35 transportation plan, they don't show up in the mile-wide corridor map being given free to voters.
The Phoenix City Council, however, has yet to set up a transportation committee to make route recommendations. And any decisions clearly won't happen before the March 28 vote. City Hall officials don't seem embarrassed that they're lagging so far behind their neighbors--even though the routes through Phoenix are the heart of the mass transit system. The hugeness of the system in Phoenix, in fact, is being used as the excuse. Goddard aide Bartak says the committee hasn't been formed because "we have so many more miles to the system [than the other cities] and go through so many more neighborhoods."
Even the mayor himself doesn't see a problem.
"We're not going to be building some of these lines for fifteen or twenty years," Goddard says. "It would be foolish to try to pick a specific route now."
Neither Goddard nor his aide is concerned things are so up in the air. Like Miller, they think voters should be willing to go to the polls and approve a system without knowing specifically where it will go.
"Yes, people want to know the answers," Bartak says. "But it's similar to the way the freeways were sited" before the successful 1985 bond election. "They drew wide lines on maps. Then the specific alignments were made much farther down the road. Sure, some said, `Hell, no,' but others said, `It will drive up the value of my property.'"
Despite the optimism of Goddard and Bartak, not all the supporters of the transit system see the lack of information as harmless. Mark DeMichele, president of Arizona Public Service, says he understands why more specific plans haven't been presented to the public. But he thinks it might hurt the cause.
"More information needs to be gotten out," DeMichele says, not just about specific routes but exactly what buffer zones are planned between the rail line and residential neighborhoods. "People need to have some assurance that their homes are not going to be impacted."
Miller says that even though there isn't an official citizens' committee in Phoenix yet, his staff has worked with residents of various villages. That dispute over whether the line in northeast Phoenix will go up Cave Creek Road or along the Squaw Peak Parkway shows that the plan is, indeed, getting more specific, he stresses. But he says the dispute between those two village committees explains why it was impossible to choose one option or the other. And since both possibilities carry the same weight right now, it's accurate that the public map shows a mile-wide strip here, he adds.
Miller's professed deference for village plans is missing elsewhere in Phoenix.
For instance, the Camelback East Village Committee wants the rail line to run east of 24th Street along largely commercial Thomas Road. But transit planners acknowledge in their $35 book that instead they're pushing to run the train along Indian School Road and the canal bank across the street from the single-family homes in the politically active Arcadia neighborhood.
That decision, like all the others about the rail line, will come--eventually. But not before the March 28 vote--an election counting on the Valley's willingness to write a multibillion-dollar check based on inch-wide lines on a map.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.