Proposition 104, AKA MovePHX, funds a 35-year transit plan by increasing the sales tax for transit from 0.40% to 0.70%, and continuing it beyond its originally scheduled expiration in 2020. The city estimates the tax will bring in around $17b in additional revenue over its lifetime, and with more funding from other sources the city plans to spend something approaching $32b on transit improvements. Among the proposals: more light rail, more frequent bus service and new routes, more bike friendliness, and street & sidewalk improvements.
Let me just say, I would love—LOVE—to be able to get rid of my car. Vehicles are a huge expense, second only to housing in most budgets. Car payments, maintenance, fuel, insurance, repairs, registration—it’s a money pit. I would support a reasonable, realistic plan for public transportation in Phoenix, but I have difficulty believing that this is it. Prop 104 is a cornucopia of spending seasoned with broken promises, questionable utility, and a distinct lack of accountability.
The *ahem* “temporary” transit tax that is being increased and extended was originally sold to Phoenix voters as part of a similarly fêted 20-year comprehensive plan in 2000. Transit 2000 was supposed to solve all Phoenix’s problems for decades to come, make us THE city of the future, and give every Phoenix household a pet unicorn.
Many of the improvements that were promised in 2000 never happened, were later cut back, and/or did not deliver the promised results. Brenna Goth of the Arizona Republic nicely summarizes those discrepancies. In short, much of the current proposal is the same thing we were promised fifteen years and four billion dollars ago—but now it’s going to take two and a half times as long and cost nine times as much. Unicorn not included.
Population Growth vs Ridership & Commute Times
With those broken promises in mind, it is hard not to question the supposed need for such a major expenditure. MovePHX points loudly to Phoenix’s projected population growth as a justification for investment in public transit. This was a major argument made in favor of Transit2000 also, but the numbers just don’t add up. According to the Census Bureau, from 2000-2013 (the most recent year for which commuter statistics are available) Phoenix’s population grew by about 13.8%, but average commute times fell by about 6.5% from 26.1 minutes to 24.4 minutes (slightly below the nationwide average), while the percentage of commuters using mass transit options remained very low and stagnant, barely moving from 3.3% to 3.4%. Our commute times are really not that long; more mass transit is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
The cornerstone of these two transportation plans has been light rail, but the service corridor is so limited, even if the city had a burning need for mass transit, it’s hard to see how this plan would meet it. It serves only a handful of educational and commercial centers representing a fraction of the city’s population at enormous cost the rest of the city.
Urban Village Planning
By design, Phoenix is not a city that needs a sprawling mass transit system. Although the city is America’s 6th largest by population, and the least dense of the ten cities over 1m people, that low density is not the result of sprawl around a hyper-dense city center that needs large numbers of people funnelled into it each workday. Rather, Phoenix exemplifies the “urban village” planning model, which subdivides the city into fifteen ‘villages’ that each seek to maintain an internal balance of residents, shopping, services, and jobs. I speak frequently with people moving into or out of Phoenix, and invariably they comment on how, wherever you live in Phoenix, you are only a short trip away from stores, doctors, recreation, and employment options. While there will always be a degree of cross-city commuting, it is not a primary component of our infrastructure. We would be far better served by an expansion of the local circulators, such as ALEX, that move around the local village areas, and key express bus routes city wide, than by committing to the higher ongoing costs of a limited-service light rail system—and better bus service can be rolled out much more quickly.
Lack of Accountability
With over a quarter of the proposal’s spending earmarked for a light rail system that does not serve the interests of the city as a whole, and the remainder of the project shrouded in mights and maybes with no firm commitments, I can’t help but think that in 2030 or so the city will be delivering on its promises as well as Transit2000 did and asking us once again for yet more money.
In recent memory, Phoenix has used transit money to rip up perfectly good sidewalk ramps all over the city to replace them with ramps with a slightly reduced slope. This was one of the ‘shovel-ready’ make-work jobs President Obama advertised. Despite years of regularly walking to work, church, the store, the park, etc, I never observed anyone having difficulty navigating the original ramps. This was only the most publicly obvious waste of transit money—I shudder to think what inefficiency or cronyism lurks in the bowels of a new, thirty-some billion dollar boondoggle.
Prop 104 raises taxes and makes the same broken promises we’ve seen before—promises that, even if delivered, do little to serve the city as a whole. There are less expensive solutions that would deliver better service sooner. Vote NO on this wasteful spending.