Lawmakers are holding transportation cash hostage over arguments we've already settled

·6 min read
People wait for the Valley Metro light rail on a rainy Tempe morning on Jan. 15, 2023.
People wait for the Valley Metro light rail on a rainy Tempe morning on Jan. 15, 2023.

The greater Phoenix area’s rise as a powerhouse metropolis is real.

By just about every meaningful measurement, metro Phoenix thrives: Jobs, overall cost of living, quality of life, infrastructure.

Proof of this is the region’s No. 4 ranking on the Milken Institute’s 2022 list of best performing cities, which places an emphasis on jobs, wages and high-tech growth.

Just four years earlier, Phoenix ranked 20th among big cities.

That success is in jeopardy.

We already voted on the future of light rail, buses

Not because of metro Phoenix’s business climate, or its tax policies, or its workforce.

It’s threatened by a small band of conservative state lawmakers who want to lay waste to public transportation, a key cog of the county’s infrastructure — even if it means sabotaging years of regional planning and coordination by government and citizens in Maricopa County.

In their crosshairs is an extension of a half-cent county sales tax to fund transportation projects over the next two decades.

Conservative lawmakers are holding Proposition 400 hostage, despite knowing enabling legislation needs to pass this session to allow a public vote next year.

The tax expires at the end of 2025.

And to what end? To relitigate the worthiness of buses and light rail.

Fine. Let's debunk these arguments again

That was a debate for two decades ago, but not today when light rail has become an integral part of the Valley transportation system.

Using it to obstruct funding that is essential to keep our larger system robust is an outrageous affront to the thousands of stakeholders who helped design Proposition 400.

But let’s litigate this again, and take their arguments one by one:

Buses and light rail aren’t used much and can be scaled back. Stonewalling lawmakers contest the 32 million annual rides on public transportation as “not real people.”

While it’s not 32 million distinct individuals, 2 out of 3 of those who ride the bus said in a 2019 survey that they did not have access to a car or another way to get around.

For many of the working poor, students and those with disabilities, public transportation is not an alternative or optional mode of transportation. It is the mode.

It is also a crucial component of any regional transportation system.

The other top 10 metropolitan areas in the country all support buses and light rail — some with heavy rail and subways, as well — in equal or greater magnitude.

Light rail does nothing but drain local resources. While light rail is an expensive mode, the federal government foots a large share of construction costs.

The system connects riders to downtowns in Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa and key destinations such as ASU campuses, Sky Harbor International Airport, and the homes of sports franchises Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks.

It is part and parcel to Valley Metro’s bus network, connecting riders to major lines.

Billions of dollars in office, retail and housing developments have followed the light rail lines, including more than a half a billion that helped revitalize a moribund Mesa downtown.

And that’s to say nothing of providing a way to take cars off the road and reduce vehicle emissions — including particulates that endanger our air and run afoul of federal air standards.

Subsidies for public transportation divert money from freeways and roads, which is not what the public wants. Let’s be clear: A big chunk of Proposition 400 proceeds — 42% of the projected $14.9 billion over 20 years — are to repair and maintain freeways and roads.

Another $11 billion in matching federal funds are in play.

A few conservative lawmakers objected to the proposed Proposition 400 extension for “diverting” money to what they derisively described as a “slush fund” to pay for undefined regional programs.

Those programs are undefined to provide flexibility to meet unanticipated needs that develop over the 20 years of the tax. They must still be evaluated and win approval from two panels with regional representation, with public input.

Proposition 400 shows how little the state funds

If anything, the debate over Proposition 400 revenue to maintain freeways and roads is an indictment not of regional or local government but the Legislature.

The state’s gas tax — the principal funding mechanism for the maintenance of roadways — has not changed since 1990 and is woefully in need of a hike.

Proposition 400 funding subsidizes what the state should provide, including a planned reconstruction of Interstate 17 from the I-10 split in central Phoenix to the Loop 101.

If the obstructionists at the state Capitol truly want to fix potholes and service freeways and streets, they should put their own house in order by raising the gas tax.

There’s a much better argument to be made for road maintenance with a consumption tax.

Conservative legislators are speaking the public’s will, especially against light rail.

That is hogwash. Voters have repeatedly approved the regional transportation plan despite the backlash of the few.

That includes in Phoenix, where a conservative city councilman funded a referendum in 2019 to halt light rail extensions that voters resoundingly defeated.

The plan to extend Proposition 400 followed hundreds of public meetings involving more than 15,000 citizens and the approval of representatives of 32 municipalities, counties and tribal nations.

It was three years in the making.

4% goes to light rail, and only for repairs

And yet, in the spirit of cooperation, the Maricopa Association of Governments acquiesced and made some 30 concessions, big and small.

Among them is agreeing to reduce the length of the tax from 25 years to 20 years and cap sales tax revenue on light rail to a mere 4% — for repairs of the existing system only, not new extensions.

To which obstructionist lawmakers, key among them Senate President Warren Petersen, have refused to budge.

Their inaction carries grave consequences — not just for the tens of millions in federal funding and grants that Maricopa County stands to lose to other cities and regions, but the signal it sends to business investors.

They are a risk-averse bunch who demand certainty and predictability before committing their fortunes to a community.

Senate President Petersen needs to exercise leadership and bring enabling legislation for Proposition 400 to a floor vote.

There’s sufficient support for passage despite the vehement objection of a few in his Republican ranks.

A delay could potentially set the Valley back years in regional transportation projects.

The anti-public transportation contingent may be fine with rolling the dice on their future.

Are those lawmakers so unreasonably brazen to do the same with ours?

This is an opinion of The Arizona Republic's editorial board.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona Legislature has no good reason to fight transportation plan