Traffic Thicket

Next time you're sitting in traffic, look up.

Opponents of a proposed Phoenix mass transit system would like you to picture their own pie-in-the-sky people-mover -- an overhead sky-rail system, where a computerized chauffeur zips you along at 100 mph in your private SkyTran vehicle.

No unnecessary stops. No congested freeways or brown cloud of air pollution. And no sharing a ride with total strangers, some of whom might give you the creeps.

The fare would be about 10 cents a mile.

And the taxpayers' cost to build this futuristic system over the streets of Phoenix?

Absolutely nothing, thanks to private investors whom SkyTran backers say will pay for the whole thing.

One problem. SkyTran is the brain child of an inventor whose biggest accomplishments are a fire-breathing giant robot and a flying beverage can cooler.

That hasn't stopped transit opponents from boosting the project in the hope of derailing the Transit 2000 proposal that will go before voters next week. In recent weeks, on talk shows, in local debates, in letters to the editors of various newspapers and even in the official voters pamphlet, SkyTran is being touted as the ideal alternative to the Valley's planned light rail system.

At this point, however, compared to the painstakingly crafted Transit 2000 plan, SkyTran simply won't fly. The company, based in Southern California, has never built such a complex transportation system. The company, not to mention other firms trying to develop similar personal rapid transit vehicles, has no demonstration projects and no prototypes to showcase. In fact, all it has is a Web site with sci-fi illustrations of how such a system could work. Two-person pods, which resemble the front of an airplane, zoom along elevated monorail tracks, with passengers entering and exiting every half-mile at portals.

Douglas Malewicki is SkyTran's inventor and chief proponent. He has proposed a 1,500-mile system of overhead freeways that would span not only the Valley but the state. And he says he could build it for $1.7 billion. But first, he wants to build a quarter-mile prototype track in Phoenix. He promises to accelerate a SkyTran pod to 130 mph on that short stretch of track.

Malewicki says a Valley company, which he won't name, is exploring using the system to transport its employees to the airport. That project will prove that SkyTran is not some wild idea, but is based on existing technology, combining electricity and magnetic levitation, he says.

"We're not real, yet," Malewicki admits.

Although his Web site first identifies Malewicki as a "mildly sane" creature from outer space (complete with an illustration depicting this), his résumé reveals more serious educational and professional qualifications, including a master's degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Stanford University. Malewicki concedes he has no experience in civil engineering or public transportation. But he points to other of his inventions as proof he can deliver the SkyTran system for Phoenix.

Like Robosaurus, a 40-foot-tall, 30-ton, car-eating robot that has entertained spectators at car shows and other events, including drag races at Firebird International Raceway off Interstate 10 south of Phoenix. The robot, which is operated by a human hiding in its head, lifts cars, crushes them between its metal jaws, then spits fire.

Or Canosoarus, a small cylinder that slips over a beverage can to keep it cool, then can be turned into a far-flying variation of a Frisbee later.

Some of the inventions that Malewicki had a hand in do involve vehicles, but most are for record-book contests or pure entertainment value, like the Kite Cycle that appeared on the TV show CHiPs and is scheduled to be on an upcoming I Dare You: Ultimate Challenge on UPN.

SkyTran's Web site (www.skytran.net) refers to company "activity" in Arizona, Southern California and the National Park System. But those turn out to be simply proposals to bring the SkyTran system to those areas.

The city-sponsored transit plan set to go before Phoenix voters on March 14 is not as slick and sexy as the Jetsons-like SkyTran idea. But it offers immediate, tangible solutions -- improved bus service and a light rail system -- that represent the best thinking to keep the Valley from becoming one big polluted parking lot.

It's a tough sell. Past transit-tax measures have failed. And despite efforts to encourage telecommuting, car pooling or some other form of transportation, we remain devoted to our cars. Every day, according to the Maricopa Association of Governments and the Regional Public Transportation Authority, motorists make 9.5 million trips in the Valley, traveling more than 62 million miles. Most of those trips are into, out of, or around Phoenix. Only about 1 percent of them involves some sort of public transportation.

The Clean Air Campaign, a multi-agency effort to convince Valley residents to use alternative forms of transportation during high air-pollution periods, reports that while some motorists do make efforts to cut back on trips after hearing pollution advisories, most of us can't break the one-person-per-car habit. A survey last year revealed that four out of five Valley commuters drive alone. And even fewer people are trying to find other ways to get to work besides their cars.


Because the Valley is car-friendly. We've built freeways to accommodate all those vehicles (about 2.4 million registered vehicles in Maricopa County, according to the state Motor Vehicle Division, which adds up to more than one per registered driver). The federal government is insisting Phoenix clean up its air, but the city still falls short of federal standards.

Instead, we continue to build parking lots downtown, making it even easier for drivers. In the past five years, according to the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, the number of spaces has increased by 5,000 spaces in three new garages, to about 30,000 parking spots total in lots, garages and on streets.

Brian Kearney, executive director of the partnership, says Phoenix has more plentiful, affordable parking downtown than other comparable cities.

"We have more parking on a per-square-foot basis than probably any other downtown around," he says.

The reason? There are no reasonable transit alternatives to get people into downtown. Cars are the easiest way to go. So new office buildings and sports stadiums must have new parking spaces in their plans, he says.

City officials say Phoenix has one of the worst public transit systems in the country, based on the size of the fleet, ridership and amount of money spent on service. As a result, the buses run limited hours and aren't readily available in many parts of town. And Phoenix is the only major city in the world without bus service on Sundays.

People in Phoenix don't want to ride buses. Many of the buses are aging, so breakdowns or air-conditioning problems make public transit downright unpleasant. And there's the social stigma; in the West, riding the bus is seen as a prerogative of the lower class, something for people who can't afford a car.

Still, other cities are finding that people will ride the bus or a train, given a good system. In Dallas, a city similar to Phoenix that put in place a system very much like what Phoenix is proposing, ridership has far exceeded city officials' projections.

The problems caused by a poor public transportation system will only get worse. Phoenix's population is expected to grow by 600,000 -- up from the current 1.2 million -- over the next 20 years. One study commissioned by the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce says the number of registered vehicles in the Valley is expected to double by 2025 (to nearly 6 million). And the Regional Public Transportation Authority predicts those cars and trucks will be traveling twice as many miles as they do now -- up to 118 million miles every day. Without any extra mass-transit options, traffic would slow to an average crawl of about 15 mph, according to a study by the Texas Transportation Institute, which conducts national studies of urban traffic congestion.

Weixing Zhu, an Arizona State University post-doctoral research assistant who studies urban development and air quality, says if that were to occur, air quality would get even worse because cars idling in congested traffic spew out more pollutants than moving vehicles.

Already, a new Rocky Mountain poll shows, a record number of Valley residents blame a variety of health woes on air pollution. And, in a future without traffic relief, Zhu says, people simply won't be able to live on one side of town and work on the other.

"People's tolerance levels have a limit," he says. "Eventually, there will be nothing you can do. If you want to have clean air, you have to pay more for that."

Phoenix's answer to all this is Transit 2000, a proposed four-tenths-of-a-cent sales tax to pay for better bus service and the beginnings of a light rail system. It's a comprehensive program, one that expands bus hours, boosts the express bus service, improves Dial-A-Ride for the elderly and handicapped, and builds the first leg of what would be a pollution-free Valleywide light rail system.

Officials say the tax would cost the average Phoenix household about $50 a year. The tax is crucial to garnering an estimated $600 million in federal matching funds that would help pay for the light rail component of the plan.

Proponents call it "The People's Plan" because they started with a citizens committee, held open houses, polled residents and tried to incorporate citizens' concerns and needs when they crafted it.

Now they need to convince The People to ignore their pro-car bias, their anti-bus mindset and their uncertainty about light rail.

In 1997, The People rejected Phoenix's last transit proposal. The measure proposed a permanent half-cent sales tax and promised to improve the bus system and begin planning for a light rail system. But voters weren't given maps of new bus routes or any information about whether an improved transit system would matter in their lives. It amounted to, officials realize now, a blank check taken on faith -- something voters weren't willing to hand over.

This time, Transit 2000 proponents are laying a very specific plan before voters. They have been touting the $4.8 billion proposal at presentations and debates before civic groups and neighborhood associations and on radio talk shows. They've made the rounds of newspapers, TV and radio news programs. They have posted details on the Internet (www.transit2000.com) and have included colorful maps in mailings to registered voters. Maps even appear in the publicity pamphlets and on the ballots themselves.

"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.

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.

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.

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 (www.de-railthetax.org) 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.

"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.

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.

Leaman says her organization supports the program and hopes more surrounding communities will join the system.

Of all new riders, Snoble says, two-thirds own cars that they choose not to use. He says people have adopted a new attitude toward their vehicles, one that he himself espouses.

"I love my car, but I'd just as soon keep it in the garage and keep it nice," he says.

Other reported side benefits to the Dallas system have included: a 25 percent increase in property values along the rail lines (according to a University of North Texas study), new development and renovations of commercial and high-density residential properties along the route, and increased business at stores or recreational facilities (like the Dallas Zoo) that are located along the light rail route.

But will people really use buses or trains here? The cultural shift remains to be seen.

Other cities besides Dallas that have bolstered their bus service and added light rail have found that better systems do entice new riders.

Now, even with poor service, about 1 percent of all the daily trips in the Valley are on mass transit. In areas of sparse service, like along Bell Road, where a bus comes along every hour, only about 1 percent of all travelers get onboard. But in areas where buses run more regularly, like along Central Avenue during rush hour, about 25 percent of all commuters use public transit, according to the city.

So it stands to reason that if you add more, nicer buses to the mix, better service and the option of a light rail ride for those who don't like buses, some folks will abandon those cars.

How many people will do that?

Peggy Bilsten, Phoenix city councilwoman and chair of the Transit 2000 committee, says the number of yearly transit trips is expected to more than double, from 28 million now to 70 million once the system is in place. (The projections were made by the city transit department, based on riders per available transit mile.)

"Those people will not be on the road. They will not be congesting our freeways. They will not be polluting our air," she says.

Transportation officials estimate that every 28 miles driven by Valley motorists contributes a pound of pollution to our air. And they say motor vehicles are responsible for up to 75 percent of air pollutants. So cutting the number of miles driven by vehicles would undoubtedly reduce pollution. Using transit trip figures provided by the Regional Public Transportation Authority and ridership projections made by city officials, it can be estimated that the improved system could save nearly 7 million tons of pollution from being emitted into the air each year. Now, more than 400 million tons are discharged by vehicles into the air annually, according to RPTA figures.

Bill Pfeifer, head of the Arizona chapter of the American Lung Association, says advances like cleaner-burning fuels and stricter emissions testing have helped reduce pollution over the years.

"But it's not enough. We are at a level of combating air pollution in the Valley that is going to require us to implement virtually every type of control measure that we possibly can. And there is very little that's left on the table that we cannot try to implement. And mass transit has just got to be one of them."

Contact Laura Laughlin at her online address: [email protected]

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin