Longform

Traffic Thicket

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• 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.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin