Arizona Senate can use the MAGA playbook on light rail. But it will backfire

Valley Metro light rail in Phoenix, Ariz.

There’s a saying in politics that “there’s no margin in making enemies.”

It’s more commonly expressed in the halls of power as “Don’t be an a--hole.”

As leaders in Greater Phoenix work to pass a transportation plan to keep cars, buses and trains moving in our ever-expanding economy, these are aphorisms to live by.

Otherwise, nothing gets done.

No one interest gets everything it wants

Regional transportation plans are behemoths.

They’re sprawling in their detail and endlessly complex. They bristle with opposing interests because they reflect the needs of many diverse people, attitudes, cities and institutions.

They are further complicated by demanding federal standards that must be met to draw down billions in federal funds.

In such a plan, no one gets everything they want.

The deal-making is intricate and requires patience and some humility as everyone works for the good of the greater community.

Transportation plan was a community effort

For four years thousands of Valley stakeholders, including mayors of 27 towns and cities, leaders of three Indigenous nations, Maricopa County supervisors, leaders in parts of Pinal County, officials in the Arizona Department of Transportation, business people and legions of Valley citizens have worked on a new Maricopa County transportation plan.

With a deadline looming to get a half-cent sales tax to the ballot for renewal before it sunsets in 2025, all of these stakeholders have had to make concessions to make progress.

If they don’t, billions of dollars in infrastructure needed to power the metro Phoenix economy of the next 20 years will be in jeopardy.

But a small group of conservative lawmakers in the Arizona Senate with a finely honed contempt for light rail have taken their carving knife to the larger plans of the community.

Now, some in the Senate want to hijack it

A quirk in state law has made Maricopa County do what no other Arizona county must do — win approval of the Legislature to get its transportation plan to the ballot.

A reasonable Senate leadership team might have provided guidance and pointed to places where the plan could be tightened up.

They might have challenged the assumptions on light rail while still respecting the stakeholders’ plan and different values they represent.

Metro Phoenix's transportation future: Why lawmakers will shape it

But Senate Republicans have pressed a narrow agenda that is anti-rail and indifferent to all the Valley cities that value light rail.

They are opening new fronts in an old war about the value of rail itself.

These senators think rail is a boondoggle.

MAGA Republicans are hostile to light rail

The cities that thrive on rail to spur development and to carry their citizens to jobs in the urban core believe rail is essential and the need to expand is urgent.

Roughly a quarter of the ridership comes from the mostly conservative enclaves of the East Valley, where several of these conservatives lawmakers reside.

The pandemic took a big bite out of light rail ridership, but that is coming back. In the more normal years before the pandemic, about 17 million light-rail boardings occurred annually in the East Valley.

Editorial: Every claim to kill county transportation plan, debunked

The MAGA Republicans led by Senate President Warren Petersen are hostile to the towns and cities that value light rail.

They represent a brand of Donald Trump populism that is cantankerous and unyielding. They also reject the 2020 election results.

They'd rather make enemies and lose friends

MAGA Republicans are generally not interested in working well with others. It isn’t Trump’s way. So it isn’t theirs.

They want to bull rush the opposition, even if that opposition, as in the transportation plan, is filled with Republicans and Democrats and a vanguard of the Valley’s political and business leadership who they’ll need to work with in the future.

This is how you make enemies and lose friends. This is how you produce the cumulative math that costs you three national elections in a row.

It’s how Arizona Republicans lost two U.S. Senate seats, governor, secretary of state and attorney general even as their party registration outnumbered their rivals.

The far-right can kill this plan, but at a cost

Sen. Ken Bennett, a Prescott Republican, who like the majority of his party succumbed to Trump Republicanism, had some good advice for Petersen earlier this year, as reported by The Arizona Republic’s Ray Stern.

Bennett was Senate president when Democrat Janet Napolitano was governor.

He suggested the key to progress under a Democratic governor is to assemble a majority of Republicans and Democrats and focus less on the people “on the far right or far left.”

At the moment, the far right has a stranglehold on the regional transportation plan. They have the power to stop it.

Thus they have a choice. They can brutally obstruct the plans of a wide swath of greater Phoenix stakeholders, or they can work with them constructively and reasonably to move this along.

If not, Brand Republican is going to take another big hit. And another aphorism will begin to hold sway in the halls of power:

“What goes around comes around.”

Phil Boas is an editorial columnist with The Arizona Republic. Email him at

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona Senate can try to kill light rail. But it will backfire