With light-rail measure defeated, Phoenix looks forward

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A Valley Metro light rail train departs the First and Jefferson station in Phoenix. Voters voted down an initiative on Tuesday that would have ended expansion of the light rail system.
Valley Metro
Passengers leave a light rail train at the Central and Washington station. Valley Metro says it is working to include business owners earlier in the process of expanding its light rail lines, after opposition from some businesses led to Tuesday's proposition that could have stopped expansion of the system.
Valley Metro

PHOENIX — Voters turned out in record numbers Tuesday, on a 109-degree day, to defeat a ballot measure that would have halted multiple light rail expansion projects and forever hobbled the city’s ability to invest in any rail passenger service or infrastructure.

The margin was decisive, as Proposition 105 was defeated by a 62-38 margin. (See "Phoenix voters during down effort to kill light rail expansion," Trains News Wire, Aug. 28, 2019.)

It’s a result that Shannon Scutari calls “monumental.” She is the former director for rail and sustainability at the Arizona Department of Transportation and was a policy adviser to Govs. Janet Napolitano and Janice Brewer. Now a private consultant, she helped put together a public-private partnership to fund the Tempe Streetcar.

“People were really motivated to go out and express their support,” she tells Trains News Wire. “The voters recognized that this initiative would put us completely out of balance.”

Scutari commended Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego for her staunch support of light rail. “She really cares,” Scutari says.

The morning after the election, Gallego said it was a “great day for our city” and told local public radio station KJZZ, “We’re going to be a city that’s going to invest in a robust transportation system that includes light rail.”

Valley Metro itself appeared relieved. In a statement emailed to Trains News Wire, the agency said, “Voters in Phoenix defeated an initiative that would have ended all light rail construction, prohibited future rail investment and returned billions in federal dollars previously pledged to expand the regional transit system.”

Like a wildfire ignited by a small spark, the high-profile attack on light rail in Phoenix began with business owners on the South Side who stand to lose two of four traffic lanes on Central Avenue to the new South Central Extension.

Transit opponents fanned the flames and formed a political action committee, Building a Better Phoenix, which led the effort to put the draconian Proposition 105 on the ballot.

Supporters of light rail claim that the ballot measure had the backing of so-called “dark money” groups. These 501(c)(4) political nonprofits, designated as social welfare organizations by the Internal Revenue Service, are not required to disclose their donors. Both progressive and conservative groups use them to influence elections.

The Arizona Free Enterprise Club, a 501(c)(4), repeatedly attacked the Phoenix light rail on costs, claimed that Valley Metro overstated its contribution to economic development, and described it as a “reckless boondoggle.”

Scott Mussi, the club’s president, told the Arizona Mirror that the club and its political action committee contributed $40,000 to Building a Better Phoenix. Active before the election, Building a Better Phoenix has not since updated its website nor posted to its Twitter feed.

Mussi, appearing on KJZZ following the election, attributed the defeat of Proposition 105 to the “establishment,” saying, “It’s really hard to fight city hall.”

Scutari believes that it is such small missteps and miscommunication that allows transit opponents to “exploit those flaws,” adding, “And there’s definitely flaws.”

“The community, in my opinion, should be much more involved in the design of these projects,” says Scutari. Valley Metro plans more public meetings this fall.

In its statement, the transit agency notes, “Related to the South Central Extension/Downtown Hub, the business assistance program has started earlier than ever before, and it has the largest budget allocated to technical, financial and marketing assistance programs than any other prior rail project in metro Phoenix.”

Sensitive to the sore points of local businesses, Mayor Gallego says, “We are going to continue to work with residents and business owners to make this project as easy as possible during construction.”

The larger business community supports light rail, as reflected in the statement issued by the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce. “The failure of Prop 105 is another vote of confidence from voters on the positive impact that light rail has on our community,” said Todd Sanders, chamber president and CEO.

But Gallego admits that opposition is unlikely to go away. “Some people feel strongly that we should not be investing in mass transit,” she says. “We are unlikely to sway them.”

Should opponents resurface in the future, they will have one less tool to work with. In 2018, Phoenix voters approved a ban on dark-money campaigns. Requiring individuals and organizations that make any campaign donation in excess of $1,000, the law went into effect last month, following legal review by the governor’s office.

Transit funding shows strong support when put to voters, as evidenced now four times in Phoenix. Despite the well-publicized defeat of a $5.4-billion transit plan in Nashville (see "Voters reject Nashville transit plan," Trains News Wire, May 2, 2018), 29 of 34 transit-centric ballot measures across the U.S. were approved in 2018.

With Proposition 105 behind it, Valley Metro can continue work already underway on the South Central Extension and Downtown Hub, as well as phase II of the Northwest Extension and the Capitol/I-10 West line.

Scutari’s read on the vote against Proposition 105 is that support for light rail in Phoenix has grown as the system has built out: “Voters are pleased with the fact that we've got multiple options in our transportation system.”

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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