Light Rail or Street Repair? Phoenix Transportation Needs Hit Funding Reality

The city needs to spend around $1.6 billion in the next few years to repair its roads.
City of Phoenix
The city needs to spend around $1.6 billion in the next few years to repair its roads.

Walter Gray is straddling a divide, and it's a divide that looks an awful lot like a pothole.

The self-described community activist from west Phoenix wants better, smoother streets — Council District 7, where he lives, will within five years have 91 miles of major roads that the city considers unworthy of a "good" rating, according to the Street Transportation department. This could mean anything from roads that are a little weathered to stretches of pavement pockmarked by potholes.

He also wants the light rail in the west Valley, and along with it localized economic development and infrastructure growth.

"Using a current need to kill light rail isn't the way to go." — Rick Naimark of Phoenix's Citizens Transportation Commission.

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But there's only so much money in Phoenix's coffers, and the city says it would require around $1.6 billion to overlay the pavement on major, minor, and residential streets in the next five years — a total of 4,085 miles — until they reach the "good" rating, as measured by an empirical metric of road quality called the Pavement Condition Index.

And the road quality is beginning to get irksome to residents.

"It's the number one call that comes in to our office," said Kini Knudson, the city's assistant director of street transportation.

Of the 4,085 street miles the city wants to overlay, only 519 are major roads, out of 872 major road miles in the city total. But the arterials have an outsized impact on the cost of the undertaking; bringing those roads up to a "Good" rating over five years would cost $519 million alone, the city says.

Among major Valley cities, Phoenix sits near the bottom of the totem pole. Its average PCI is 66, lower than Mesa, Peoria and Scottsdale. Only Tempe, where the average PCI is 59, is lower, according to street transportation staff.

The Phoenix City Council will be looking for a way to reconcile these priorities — supporting long-term infrastructure projects while meeting short-term maintenance needs — during its formal meeting today. The council's scheduled to vote on some combination of funding options that would reallocate state funds to pay for street maintenance over the next five years.

The options include using funding tagged for new and expanded streets for street maintenance, advancing funds from the voter-approved Transportation 2050 (T2050) plan, advancing money from the state fund made up of car and gas taxes, advancing T2050 transit funds, and delaying planned light rail expansions to free up short-term funding.

Most of the options could account for between $150 and $200 million each over a five year period, so even if the council approved all of them, a sizable street maintenance deficit, which had grown for years before T2050 was passed, would remain. And none of the options comes without a catch.

Option one, for example, would delay or inhibit several street improvement projects. Options that advance T2050 or Highway User Revenue Funds would require significant annual debt repayments that could limit the city's ability to undertake future projects and weather economic downturns.

The fifth option is the most controversial one, given the city council politicking required to continue the South Central light rail expansion as planned. It would delay two major light rail projects — an expansion northeast toward Paradise Valley Mall, and one to the west, toward the Phoenix-Glendale border — until after 2050. That would, in effect, circumvent the will of the voters who approved the T2050 plan in 2015.

Kini Knudson, assistant director of the Phoenix street transportation department - CITY OF PHOENIX
Kini Knudson, assistant director of the Phoenix street transportation department
City of Phoenix
It's so thorny an issue that during the last formal council session, when the vote was originally scheduled, the council decided to continue the matter until today. In the interim, the council sent the issue to Citizens Transportation Commission, a 14-person board created as part of T2050 that "addresses street and transit needs, provides oversight on the expenditure of funds and (makes) recommendations on plan elements and other means of generating revenue for the plan going forward," according to the city.

But the commission, which convened last week, didn't offer much in the way of concrete guidance.

"This plan is less than three years old," said Quinn Tempest, who was appointed to the commission by former Mayor Greg Stanton to represent transit users. "I see no reason for major funding changes so soon."

The body voted 12-2 to not recommend any action, despite the protests of Commissioners Roy Miller and William Smith, who wanted to delay the light rail expansion to fund street repairs.

"Only a small percentage of people use the light rail," said Miller, who was appointed to the commission by District 6 Councilman Sal DiCiccio, one of the city council's loudest anti-transit voices. "Option Five makes sense."

But inaction has its risks, and the council has made clear that it feels a sense of urgency on this matter, said Rick Naimark, who serves as the commission's transportation expert.

"I don't feel they'll put it off," Naimark said of council members.

In the end, the commission hedged its bets, drafting a tiered recommendation to the council that called for options two and three — to advance long-term funding for street maintenance — as a contingency if the council decided to push the vote through. The commission also asked the council to explore other funding mechanisms that could "fill the rest of the gap and ... secure maintenance in future years," Naimark said.

"Using a current need to kill light rail isn't the way to go," he said.

The situation will come to a head at time when the pro-transit voice on the council is weakened. Stanton resigned to run for Congress, while former council members Daniel Valenzuela and Kate Gallego resigned to run for mayor. And the council has earned the ire of advisory boards in the past for a perceived lack of cooperation.

Meanwhile the roads, unaided by long-stagnant state and federal gas tax revenues, deteriorate. Complaints about their condition flow into city offices.

"People feel they're not being listened to," Smith said.

Below — YouTube user "Life of a MK7 Golf R" versus a Phoenix road: