Traffic Thicket

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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.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin