ValTrans Derailed

Months before the ValTrans campaign started, publicist Bill Meek--the guy who was supposed to promote it--came up with some embarrassing questions.

"It occurred to me we were about to embark on a fairly major charade," recalls Meek, who had dug through an avalanche of material from the Regional Public Transportation Authority. "I started asking RPTA questions: Why are you guys doing things this way? Why don't we have documentation for the air-pollution claims on this thing? And why can't we tell anybody what the system is really going to do at rush hour?"

Meek now admits that ValTrans probably never was winnable, even though he'll collect a big hunk of the $1 million spent to sell it. What Meek now says is that he realized RPTA planners had started at the end and tried to invent the beginning. They decided on a "light rail" system, just like the one in Vancouver, B.C. So they hired the guy who built the Vancouver system and told him to come up with some ways to justify it.

It wasn't entirely the fault of transit planners or their hired Canadian gun, Larry Miller. The 1984 compromise legislation that set up two public votes--one for freeways in 1985 and the other for mass transit in 1989--produced a mass-transit plan that was more of an afterthought than a dream. The lawmakers who wanted more money for freeways didn't really want a second public vote on mass transit. But they had to accept it so they could get a half-cent levy for more freeways. And the mass-transit fans wound up having to support a bill that lumped together freeway-construction and mass transit.

The pave-the-Valley contingent got the better end of the deal. By requiring a regional transit system--and precluding a bus-only program--they ensured a costly plan that was sure to spark massive opposition. By requiring it be funded by sales taxes, they took the burden off the business community. The real blow may have been in separating the issues into two votes. A single vote four years ago on a one-penny tax for an overall transportation plan, including freeways, trains and buses, would have stood a far better chance of approval by a public frustrated with traffic jams. But Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard and other major lobbyists for mass transit finally wound up signing off on the two-vote deal.

And there was more. The legislation required transit planners to select specific corridors for a rapid-transit system before presenting the plan to the public. They did try to come up with a less expensive and less far-reaching plan. An early version actually showed only sixty miles of rail line. Another forty miles or so was penciled in as "potential" expansion if it could be justified. But that gave Mesa officials apoplexy. They complained that they were getting little more than a kiss and a promise. The politics of the situation forced planners to offer a thirty-year plan for a 103-mile rail system with an eleven-digit price tag.

"We had to sell people the future," Meek admits. The Rio Salado debacle of 1987 proved that it probably was impossible to get people to vote big bucks now for something they couldn't even visualize. It's what one ValTrans supporter describes as the buying habits of Sun Citians: "They don't even buy green bananas up there."

The pro-ValTrans campaign itself was no thing of beauty. It's been described as a three-headed monster of various PR firms working at cross purposes. The TV ads that began running about two months before the election showed cars disappearing from crowded freeways as if by magic. The message? ValTrans was the answer.

But that wasn't the answer voters were seeking. By that late in the game, they wanted someone--anyone--to respond to the charges that ValTrans would be an economic flop and a perennial drain on the public purse.

Only in Tempe, where traffic is the worst, did ValTrans pass. The transit planners never did deliver convincing evidence that cars would disappear from freeways. That failure was part of the entire structural problem that doomed the massive mass-transit program long before the polls opened.

Transit planners manipulated statistics to try to justify ValTrans, and some of the numbers didn't stand up, such as the prediction that the transit system would mean a thirty-ton-a-day reduction in carbon monoxide pollution by the year 2020. That proved easy pickings for the opponents, who pointed out that was only a small percentage of the estimated 950 tons that will spew into the air each day by 2020.

The statistics were a house of cards. Any reduction in air pollution was based on getting people out of their cars and onto buses and trains. Transit planners never could show that people really would use it. Unable to prove that point, the ValTrans rationale came tumbling down.

The night of the March 28 vote, before the body was even cold, Terry Goddard and other public officials began offering excuses about why voters tromped ValTrans: The project was simply too big, too ambitious and too expensive, and the opponents ran a campaign of misinformation.

Could it be that urban sprawl encouraged by city councils makes mass-transit unthinkable in the Valley because everything is built around the automobile? Linda Nadolski is one of the few public officials who will publicly buy into at least part of that theory. "Phoenix is just too big," says the Phoenix councilwoman. "We have no sense of identity and direction," something she believes is necessary to unite people behind massive public-works projects. But others see no reason to change. Councilman Howard Adams says he would rather have the city annex undeveloped areas rather than risk the creation of new cities on the city's northern border. Councilwoman Mary Rose Wilcox insists Phoenix needs to continue to grow to increase revenue sources.

Aside from sprawl, there's the question of trust. But Goddard maintains that public dissatisfaction with him and other elected officials "was not a significant factor" in the defeat of ValTrans. "There aren't that many people out there who don't like me," the mayor says. But Goddard was one of the premier drumbeaters for ValTrans and would have been a powerful member of the board deciding exactly what to build and where to put it. For some voters, the question was whether they trusted this man and his colleagues to run a railroad.

Goddard and company never bothered to appoint a citywide citizens committee to recommend decisions and secure public involvement. In Tempe, by contrast, one of the city's first acts was to form such a panel and include neighborhood groups.

Several ValTrans supporters acknowledge that the bottom line was trust. In January, ValTrans consultant Rosendo Gutierrez told prospective voters, "If you don't trust your elected officials, you probably should vote against it." They don't, and they did.