Traffic Thicket

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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 They say the planners are looking at outdated or unproven methods when they should be supporting better new methods of transporting folks, like the privately funded SkyTran system.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.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin