Phoenix Votes to Expand Light Rail, as Cities Wrestle With Public Transit

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28 August 2019 16:56

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In Durham, N.C., plans for a light-rail route connecting residents, universities and hospitals were scrapped amid objections from Duke University officials, who said it would cause problems at the school’s medical campus. In Baltimore, Maryland’s governor, Larry Hogan, deemed a transit line proposal too expensive, ending hopes for a link between the east and west sides of the city.

But another city’s fight over light rail ended differently this week: Residents in Phoenix voted on Tuesday to continue financing that city’s growing light-rail system — a rebuke to opponents who had argued that the system was too costly, and a boost to people who see public transit as a key to the city’s future.

Preliminary tallies on Wednesday showed votes to continue financing an expanded rail system were far ahead of those to end it, according to figures from The Associated Press.

As cities across the nation have sought to build light-rail systems over the last decade to reduce congestion and air pollution, local governments have faced opposition over spending billions of dollars to pay for entirely new transportation systems in places long dominated by cars and highways.

The opposition, which has sometimes been linked to national conservative organizations, has often asserted that such projects are wasteful and tend to accelerate gentrification in neighborhoods along rail lines. In other cases, residents of wealthier, mostly white suburbs have complained that connecting their neighborhoods to inner cities might lead to increases in crime.

The vote in Phoenix, which has wrestled with poor air quality, intermittent droughts and heavy reliance on automobiles, comes after decades of dizzying growth.

Phoenix — the nation’s fifth-largest city, with a population of about 1.6 million, — was built for cars. But as any driver who gets stuck during rush hour on Interstate 10 near downtown will attest, the city now wrestles with traffic.

Valley Metro Rail, the area’s 28-mile light-rail line, opened in December 2008. It serves about 48,000 people each weekday and has stops in downtown Phoenix, as well as at or near Sky Harbor International Airport, Arizona State University in Tempe and the Mesa Arts Center in Mesa.

The system was built in stages using federal transportation funds and three different voter-approved sales tax increases. But as cost estimates for new rail lines increased, so did the grumbling among some residents.

That divided Phoenix into two camps — those who said light rail was too expensive and not a priority, and those who said the region’s future depended on expanded rail.

“Modernization is at risk,” Mike Huckins, a spokesman for the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, said this week, before the results of the citywide vote on the light-rail system’s future were announced.

Mayor Kate Gallego, a Democrat, who has supported expanding the rail system, described the election results as essential to the city’s future.

“The eyes of the nation were on Phoenix, and it’s important that the voters stepped up and said yes, we want to make this investment,” Ms. Gallego said.

Opponents had argued that too few riders used the system to make the estimated $1 billion cost of a six-mile extension along South Central Avenue worthwhile. That project and two other planned extensions would have been scrapped if voters had approved Proposition 105 on Tuesday.

Those who opposed expansion said they wanted the money used to repave some of Phoenix’s pothole-filled streets and to pay for other infrastructure needs. The city has said it will cost about $1.6 billion to restore the streets to decent condition.

“Bad News: 70 percent of Phoenix streets are in fair, poor, or very poor condition,” Sal DiCiccio, a city councilman, wrote in support of the ballot initiative before the vote. “Good News: You have a chance to fix those roads” by voting to block the light rail expansion.

Among the Phoenix initiative’s largest backers was Scot Mussi, president of the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, a conservative nonprofit group that received donations from Americans for Prosperity as recently as 2016, according to tax records.

Americans for Prosperity, a political advocacy group which has been backed by Charles G. Koch and the late David H. Koch, has in the past coordinated door-to-door anti-transit canvassing campaigns for several local or state-level ballots measures around the nation. The organization says it has not had a direct role in the Phoenix initiative against light rail.

Other cities that have tried to build extensive light-rail systems have seen mixed results.

A plan for a $2.4 billion light-rail line with 18 stops from Durham to Chapel Hill was discussed for two decades but was dropped in March after Duke University, whose campus would have been skirted by the line, opposed the project.

Duke administrators said it would jeopardize public safety and health. The university’s resistance was criticized by Duke graduates and nearby residents who thought the school was shirking its responsibility to help the surrounding community.

In Denver, expansions of light rail have sometimes fallen behind schedule but have drawn companies to growing areas, transportation officials said.

In Baltimore, advocates for light rail say they can only rue the loss of what might have been after Governor Hogan killed a plan in 2015 for a $2.9 billion light-rail expansion known as the Red Line.

Samuel Jordan, president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, said the decision threw away opportunities for jobs and development. Fewer than one-third of jobs in the Baltimore area can be reached within 90 minutes using public transit, according to a 2016 study by the Brookings Institution.

“Without reliable, equitable transportation, Baltimore won’t be a modern city,” Mr. Jordan said. “It won’t rank among the leading cities of this nation.”

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