Fight Over South Central Light Rail Extension Erupts at City Council

Left: Johnny Hernandez, a light rail supporter, addresses the Phoenix City Council. Celia Contreras, right, is leading an effort to halt the light rail's planned extension to south Phoenix.EXPAND
Left: Johnny Hernandez, a light rail supporter, addresses the Phoenix City Council. Celia Contreras, right, is leading an effort to halt the light rail's planned extension to south Phoenix.
Joseph Flaherty
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An extension of the light rail was sold to Phoenix residents as an easy win for the city's south side.

The project would connect under-served communities to downtown Phoenix, according to city officials and the transit authority. Voters even approved an accelerated extension by a wide margin in 2015.

Now, pro- and anti-light rail contingencies have collided over the planned six-mile expansion of the light rail to reach south Phoenix. The conflict erupted during a special City Council meeting on Tuesday night that lasted for nearly five hours.

Celia Contreras, a south Phoenix business owner leading the drive to halt the light rail extension, said that the city never fully explained the damaging effects that light rail could bring to south Phoenix — including reducing the traffic on Central Avenue to one lane in each direction.

“We have a lot of questions for you, and you don’t have any answer," she told the Council.

During the chaotic session, Acting Mayor Thelda Williams apologized for mishandling the schedule for the meeting; a council member called the city manager a liar; and a packed audience jeered the transit authority chief as well as a council member, Kate Gallego, who represents part of the city where the rail extension will be installed.

One by one, people took to the podium to decry a lack of transparency from the regional transit authority, Valley Metro.

Although light-rail opponents dominated the speaking section of the meeting, fans of the light rail seem like they're not going to let the City Council kill the project without a fight. At the meeting, they wore sea foam green T-shirts that read, "Save South Central."

A coalition of business owners along the light rail extension route have been agitating about the project since last year. The group is led by Contreras, who owns Tony's Window Tinting on Central Avenue, just north of Broadway Road. She and her family formed a grassroots organization called 4 Lanes or No Train to publicize the issue.

At Monday's meeting, Contreras said that south Phoenix residents don’t necessarily oppose the light rail — they oppose the design of the light rail extension. Her organization is demanding a 90-day pause to the light rail expansion.

She accused the city of purposefully leaving out the community.

"You choose a little group of people, you close the door, and you make the decision," Contreras told them.

Mayor Williams called the special meeting in a June 11 letter to the city clerk, but the agenda of the meeting became a source of controversy when it was released on Tuesday.

Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who abhors the light rail, was incensed that the city staff had apparently removed the possibility of City Council action during the light rail special meeting, essentially reserving the meeting for discussion purposes only. He called the city staff "corrupt" on Twitter.

Williams admitted that it was her mistake, and blamed it on a "miscommunication."

"I just want you to know, it’s my fault there’s no action today," Williams told the audience at the start of the meeting.

Her apology didn't satisfy DiCiccio, who spent the first part of the meeting sparring with Williams over the agenda.

"When they want to contrive a vote, this is how they do it," DiCiccio said of the city staff. "This is a disgrace and it’s an embarrassment for the city of Phoenix."

Because council members DiCiccio, Michael Nowakowski, and Laura Pastor wrote a letter to the city manager requesting that he add an action item to Wednesday's Council meeting, the City Council now has the option to make a decision on the South Central extension.

What council members might do, however, is a mystery. At this stage of the project, no option will satisfy everyone.

For one thing, federal dollars are set to pour into Phoenix to assist in the construction of the six-mile South Central project. But according to Deputy City Manager Mario Paniagua, these dollars are tied to a July 31 deadline, when the city has to transition to the engineering phase of the project.

"If that doesn’t happen at this point, then the project will be removed from the federal process and will need to start all over," Paniagua told the council, adding that if there is any delay in the light rail project, $595 million federal dollars will be in jeopardy.

To make matters worse, these federal dollars for South Central dwarf the $150 million coming from 2004's Proposition 400 sales-tax hike, as well as the $220 million allocated from a 2015 Phoenix referendum.

As a result, the 90-day delay requested by 4 Lanes or No Train would wreck Valley Metro's tightly wound schedule and potentially scuttle the project.

Phoenix voters approved funding for the light rail extension in the 2015 referendum on a long-term transportation plan, known as T2050. Because the City Council approved an accelerated timeline for the extension, the South Central line is slated to open in 2023 instead of 2034.

The South Central extension is still in the design phase, which is scheduled to last until the end of 2019.

South Phoenix residents berated Valley Metro for the agency's poor outreach efforts, saying that they were never informed of the lane restrictions that would stem from the light rail expansion.

Scott Smith, the CEO of Valley Metro, sat with city officials at the front of the room looking glum. He only spoke up a handful of times to rebut something that was said during the citizen comment section. But he and Panigua emphasized that 380 meetings took place with business owners along the South Central route.

"We were going over with every business who had a question as to how this development would impact their access," Smith said. "Everyone who came forward with a question we either met with our engineers, with our planners, and others to make sure that their questions were answered."

Valley Metro also studied different routes when considering how to take the light rail from downtown Phoenix to Baseline Road before settling on the Central Avenue route, Smith said.

Council members denied a citizen petition from 4 Lanes or No Train that asked them in April to reconsider the light rail project. But the ground may have shifted in the grassroots organization's favor since then. Mayor Greg Stanton, a light rail supporter, resigned at the end of May to run for Congress. By mid-August, two Democratic Council members, Gallego and Daniel Valenzuela, must resign to run for the mayor's office.

During this period of turbulence at city hall, DiCiccio and Councilman Jim Waring — both avowed light rail foes — have seized on the concerns of the south Phoenix residents to hammer home their agenda. They describe the light rail as a massive boondoggle.

Near the end of the meeting, DiCiccio called the entire meeting a "sham" and ripped into City Manager Ed Zuercher.

“The city manager, in particular, has done nothing but lie to you," DiCiccio told the audience. "He is a liar.”

Before the meeting had even ended, DiCiccio released a statement that said he was asking Zuercher to place his position as an agenda item for the July 5 Council meeting.

DiCiccio's chief of staff, Sam Stone, confirmed that the councilman wants Zuercher to leave or be fired.

"Councilman DiCiccio believes that either the City Manager should resign, or Council should vote to remove him from his position," Stone later told Phoenix New Times. "If presented with such a vote, Councilman DiCiccio fully intends to vote in favor of his removal."

Zuercher did not respond to a request for comment.

Waring admitted at the meeting that he has "his own biases here," before suggesting that the council kill the light rail project by delaying it or sending the issue back to voters in the November election.

He said that it was a mistake for Phoenix voters to sign off on the T2050 plan in 2015: "I’d like them to have another bite at the apple."

Nevertheless, in order to put some kind of a light rail referendum on the November ballot, the city council would have to act fast. Zuercher told the Council that the measure would have to be approved in early July in order to make the deadline.

Audience members also floated ideas for how to defuse the tension over the light rail expansion. Some suggested sending the route down 24th Street instead of Central Avenue. Other people said that the city should spend money on improved bus options.

Others spoke up in favor of letting the light rail project play out as planned.

Jonny Hernandez, who wore one of the "Save South Central" shirts, told the Council that he grew up riding the bus. He said that south Phoenix residents deserve the opportunity to have the light rail run through their neighborhood.

“I challenge you just to see what it’s like for the average person — not the business owners — the average person who lives right there and utilizes the transportation," Hernandez said.

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