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War on transit: Phoenix edition

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In my podcast with Rob in the Spring, I tried to raise the alarm bell about the decline in public transportation use over the last 3-4 years, a disturbing trend following an era of 25 years characterized by modest growth in ridership. As I noted then, the decline is troublingly widespread among major metros, but not universally so. Seattle and Houston are generally the two most talked about exceptions, but Phoenix is the third. Phoenix, unsurprisingly, shares a key characteristic to explain this trend-bucking growth–in 2015, the voters comfortably passed Prop. 104, a transit tax to raise nearly 30 billion for a significant light rail expansion and improved bus service.

If all goes well in November, January will see Kyrsten Simena will replace Jeff Flake as Arizona Senator, and former Phoenix mayor and huge Prop. 104 booster Greg Stanton will replace Simena in the House of Representatives, representing AZ-09. While the former is far more consequential, both of these should be improvements. (Stanton should be on the short list for the 2020 special to finish McCain’s term, frankly.) But the domino effect of Stanton leaving the Mayor’s office to run for congress is two pro-transit council members resigning to run for mayor, leaving something of a void in city government, which may have catastrophic consequences:

On Wednesday, the City Council voted 5-3 to study diverting billions of dollars set aside for light rail and buses — and spending it on roads instead.
In 2015, Phoenix residents voted by a 55-45 margin for a transit tax measure to raise $17.5 billion for expanded light rail and bus service. So far, the city has built six miles of light rail at a cost of about $450 million.

Wednesday’s vote was not decisive. It only allows the City Council to study diverting the transit funds to road repair. But the result is still ominous: A second vote scheduled for September 19 could actually raid transit funding, according to the Arizona Republic.

These votes are happening against a backdrop of concerted attacks on the city’s transit plans.

In June, a last-ditch attempt to kill the six-mile South Central Light Rail extension — which appeared to be backed by Koch-Brothers affiliated astroturf groups — was narrowly defeated in City Council. However, two of the City Council members who saved the project have since resigned to run for mayor.

Sean Sweat, an advocate who served on the city’s Complete Streets Advisory Board, says there’s a power vacuum in Phoenix following the departure of former Mayor Greg Stanton to run for Congress. Stanton was a chief proponent of the 2015 transit measure, known as Prop 104.

In Stanton’s absence, anti-transit Council Member Sal DiCiccio has “been taking advantage of it to make more progress on his agenda,” said Sweat.

It’s not clear where the anti-transit group — which originally called itself “Four Lanes or No Trains” — is getting its funding. Noting the similarities to other Koch Brothers campaigns around the country, Congressmember Reuben Gallego and other observers have concluded that the Kochs must be bankrolling it. In June, the New York Times listed Phoenix as one of several cities where the Koch political network is coordinating anti-transit campaigns.

When I talk about the politics of public transit, a lot of people seem to want to take a fatalistic view that Americans just hate transit and love their cars, so what can you do? This isn’t completely wrong; the lack of regular users certainly makes some pro-transit voters less enthusiastic and reliable. But the fact of the matter is that transit does pretty well at the ballot box, especially when the issue hasn’t been effectively politicized. (One of my favorite examples is the recent creation of a public transit system in Okanogan county, WA–a deep red rural county where voters, in an off-year election, voted for a non-trivial sales tax increase to pay for the creation of a transit system. Okanogan county has just over forty thousand residents, and is almost the size of Connecticut.) Roads spending does not do so well, comparatively. (Which is why it’s rarely put to a vote.) When the Puget Sound area sought to expand light rail and regional buses, for example, the legislature attached a significant roads package to the transit vote. The combined measure lost; the Seattle Time chalked it up to a new era of fiscal conservatism among voters. The following year, a transit only measure won easily.

A willingness of a voting public to tax oneself to do good things provides opportunities for scammy politicians, but rarely is it quite this brazen; the outright theft of billions in transit money, supported by a double digit margin just three years ago, absolutely cannot be tolerated. Of course, it doesn’t help that Phoenix is one of many local governments to whom the Trump administration’s FTA is refusing, probably illegally, to release congressionally appropriated, awarded, and promised federal transportation grant funds.

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