Bowing to pressure from south Phoenix residents, the Phoenix City Council on Wednesday directed the transit authority to scrutinize a hotly contested expansion of the light rail to South Central Avenue.
According to the Valley Metro chief, the project can still meet crucial federal requirements even as officials regroup to potentially allow for four lanes of traffic on Central Avenue. Under the original plan, the six-mile extension would have reduced traffic to one way in each direction.
South Phoenix business owners and residents raised concerns that the two-lane traffic along the light rail would ultimately wreck their bottom line.
They had asked the Council to halt or even kill the project. South Phoenix business owners led the opposition through a grassroots organization, 4 Lanes or No Train. They've been cheered on by two members of the City Council who are opposed to light rail.
South Phoenix residents were asking for a 90-day halt to the project. But their demand to hit pause would have threatened the extension’s federal funding, which requires the city to meet a strict timetable.
"The implications of this vote are enormous," Councilwoman Kate Gallego said prior to the vote on Wednesday.
Under the new direction from the City Council, the project is not at risk of failing to meet the federal grant deadlines, according to Deputy City Manager Mario Panigua.
Nevertheless, there will be costs to maintain four lanes of traffic on Central Avenue, Valley Metro CEO Scott Smith told the Council.
"The tradeoffs will be that you probably won’t have sidewalks as wide," he explained. "You won’t have landscaping. There may be points where the left turns are challenged and you will have disruptions in traffic."
The reason Valley Metro opted against four lanes in the first place was because buildings will have to be torn down, Smith warned — rending the business fabric of South Central in a much more intrusive way than restricting lanes.
"I can tell you that if their building is torn down or moved, that will absolutely disrupt their business," Smith said.
City staff and Valley Metro will evaluate how to keep Central Avenue open to four lanes of traffic even though the current design plans are 60 percent complete, according to Smith.
While defending the plan, Smith made it clear that they did not arrive at the two-lane configuration overnight. He referred to a 2014 City Council decision that approved the two-lane design.
Backed by Councilwoman Laura Pastor, Councilman Michael Nowakowski asked staff and Valley Metro to provide an alternative design for the route with four vehicle lanes “to the full extent possible,” while satisfying the federal environmental assessment.
Nowakowski also asked for a robust community engagement process — led by someone independent of Valley Metro — to discuss the pros and cons of the four-lane design. South Phoenix residents have excoriated Valley Metro for what they called a lackluster outreach effort during the years leading up to the project.
The Council approved Nowakowski's motion in a 6-2 vote, with Gallego and Vice Mayor Jim Waring voting against it.
Because of an alternative proposal from Waring, Phoenix's multiyear light rail master plan was on the edge of a knife for much of Wednesday's meeting.
At one point, Waring proposed subjecting the South Central light rail extension to another citywide vote. Voters already approved the expansion in a 2015 referendum, Proposition 104, that funded a long-term transportation plan known as T2050. Because the City Council voted in 2016 to accelerate construction using the new funds, the South Central extension is scheduled to open in 2023.
“If I can kill it, that’s what I’m gonna do,” Waring said.
Other council members seemed alarmed by his proposal. Smith said that the decision could create ripple effects in a regional transit system. The decision to pause the project in a unilateral way for a new referendum could unwind relationships with other authorities that govern transit, he explained.
Gallego was more blunt: "This is about the future of Phoenix today."
The Council members voted 6-2 to ignore Waring's proposal.
But Celia Contreras, the 4 Lanes or No Train leader, believes that south Phoenix residents didn’t understand the scope of the light rail expansion when they approved it in the 2015 referendum.
Since the 4 Lanes or No Train group formed last year, members' opposition has hardened.
What began as frustration over the soon-to-be restricted lanes has become a wholesale push against light rail. In a Council meeting on Tuesday night, several members of the public issued jeremiads, arguing that crime is rampant on board the light rail and calling the train a "homeless hotel."
Others asked for the city to fix potholes and improve bus service before committing to an expensive light rail route.
Contreras explained that some south Phoenix residents might support the South Central extension if the train went down a different street, a sentiment she expressed to the Council on Tuesday night.
"We are against the design of the light rail," she said.
However, today Contreras said that most residents oppose the project like her.
"Ninety percent of south Phoenix, they don’t want the light rail at all," Contreras told Phoenix New Times before the meeting.
In April, the City Council rejected a citizen petition that demanded four lanes remain open on Central Avenue. But now, Mayor Thelda Williams has taken over for Greg Stanton, who resigned at the end of May to run for Congress, changing the dynamic on the Council.
Williams accepted the light rail as a discussion item for a special meeting on Tuesday that lasted for nearly five hours. After an uproar from anti-light rail Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who was concerned that the council members wouldn’t have an opportunity to make a decision on the project, Williams added the South Central light rail extension as an action item for Wednesday’s meeting.
The debate has gotten ugly. At Tuesday's meeting, furious at how the city handled the light rail project, DiCiccio declared that City Manager Ed Zuercher was a "liar." DiCiccio is now pushing for Zuercher to resign or to put his position up for a vote by the Council.
Also at that meeting, Gallego raised the possibility of outside influence in the light rail fight, referring to the Koch brothers. The conservative billionaire donors are reportedly seeking to derail public transit initiatives in cities around the country, including Phoenix.
Contreras denied that her group has received support from outside forces, much less Charles and David Koch.
"Yesterday is the first time that I listen to these brothers’ names," she told Phoenix New Times.
Another stauch light rail supporter, Councilman Daniel Valenzuela — who, like Gallego, is running for mayor — voted for the four-lane review after Smith assured him that the project would survive.
Even so, the risk remains that the Federal Transit Administration, a key funder of the South Central expansion, will balk at the hasty revisions.
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An upcoming July 31 deadline requires the city to submit plans to the federal government for the engineering phase of the project. Missing the deadline could threaten $595 million in federal funds that are crucial to the project’s completion, according to Corinne Holliday, a Valley Metro spokesperson.
"If you don’t meet those deadlines, then you lose the money," Holliday told Phoenix New Times.
Contreras said that her neighbors aren’t worried. They don’t want to waste money on the light rail, and they don’t care about the loss of federal funding. From her perspective, the more south Phoenix residents learned about the project, the more their outrage swelled.
"The city of Phoenix is dirty," she said.