Maricopa County’s Transportation Plan Is Outdated

phoenix arizona freeway

Every workday hundreds of thousands of drivers endure horrible congestion on the freeways and streets of Phoenix while commuting to and from their jobs. A study released in 2015 by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute estimated, for example, that Phoenix commuters were stuck in traffic jams for about 51 hours in 2014, racking up a “congestion cost” of $1,201 per person. This amount was calculated by combining the costs of wasted gas and lost time. And there are obviously other costs associated with this rush hour mess, such as health-damaging stress and unhealthy levels of air pollution.

Considering the magnitude of the problem, you would presume that solving it is the number one priority of the area’s transportation planners. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. In fact, it’s somewhat the opposite.

Some of the blame for this awful traffic belongs to the Republican-controlled Arizona State Legislature. In 2004 they passed H.B. 2456, which placed Proposition 400 on the ballot in Maricopa County. It asked county voters if they wanted to extend a half-cent per dollar sales tax until 2025 to fund local transportation improvement projects. But it also dictated how the money had to be used if the measure was approved. It required that the revenues had to be spent as follows:

  • 56.2% on freeways (mostly new) and highways
  • 33.3% on public transit
  • 10.5% on improving existing arterial streets

Maricopa County voters had little choice but to pass Proposition 400 in the fall of 2004 because their only other option was to gut transportation funding. And new freeways needed to be built because rapid real estate development had created traffic that far exceeded the capacity of the existing roadways.

But today there are freeways serving all of Phoenix’s densely populated areas. The only new freeway that can be justified is the South Mountain Freeway, which will significantly reduce congestion and air pollution along Interstate 10 in Phoenix by allowing cross-country commercial truck traffic to bypass the city.

The Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) is the regional planning authority for metro Phoenix, and its Transportation Policy Committee (TPC) is in charge of the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) that’s funded by the Proposition 400 revenues. The committee solicits public comments on the RTP, but its hands are somewhat tied by the spending rules included in Proposition 400.

Still, the TPC could at least focus its freeway spending on improving the existing the ones, instead of building new ones. But the current plan still includes millions of dollars for the Estrella Freeway (303L), the I-10 Reliever (SR 30), and the Gateway Freeway (SR 24). All of these new roads are on the outskirts of Phoenix, and will create more traffic congestion by contributing to urban sprawl. In other words, they primarily benefit real estate development – not existing transportation problems. This can be partially explained by the fact that when the legislature created the TPC in 2003, it mandated that six of its 23 members must be local business representatives appointed by the legislature.

The rigid spending rules included in Proposition 400 are one of the reasons that the City of Phoenix submitted Proposition 104 to the voters in 2015. City leaders realized that they’d have to find another source of funding in order to improve mass transit and add alternative transportation options. The city’s voters subsequently approved the proposed 0.7% sales tax increase to help fund a 35 year modern urban transportation plan.

The residents of Tucson also seem to understand that more freeways aren’t necessarily the answer. In 2006 Pima County voters approved a half-cent sales tax through 2026 to fund a regional transportation plan. The plan is administered by the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) of the Pima Association of Governments (PAG). Their plan also spends most of the revenues on freeways (57%), but the money’s intended to improve existing ones, not build new ones.

Phoenix’s serious traffic congestion and air pollution problems cannot be solved by just building more freeways. A ballot initiative to implement a new transportation plan that prioritizes modern mass transit solutions in the urban core should be submitted to the county’s voters. The economic benefits from this strategy would undoubtedly be greater than the existing plan, and it would ensure that existing residents are the primary beneficiaries of local transportation spending. The problem can’t wait until Proposition 400 expires in 2025.


Instead of investing more in mass transit, a group of light rail opponents, called Building a Better Phoenix, completed a successful petition drive in late 2018 to send the popular public transit system to the ballot in August 2019, asking voters to end light-rail expansion in Phoenix and instead divert the city’s money to conventional transportation projects.

Comparing Two Arizona Scandals

A Phoenix newspaper investigation in November found that Valley Metro Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Steve Banta appeared to have abused his expense account by several tens of thousands of dollars. Valley Metro is the metropolitan Phoenix public mass transit district that manages the local bus and light rail system.

Banta subsequently resigned and the district’s new interim CEO, Eric Anderson, told the district’s governing boards that Valley Metro’s travel budget will be reduced and all employee travel expenses will be scrutinized from now on. The City of Phoenix, the largest contributor to the district’s budget, is conducting an audit of all of the organizations travel expenses back to 2010.

Valley Metro operates with public funding, so there was justifiable outrage when Banta’s inappropriate expenditures were revealed, especially from local conservative politicians. The three most conservative members of the Phoenix City Council sent a letter to Arizona State Attorney General Mark Brnovich calling for a criminal investigation into Banta’s spending. Brnovich, also a conservative Republican, responded by recently announcing that his office will conduct a criminal investigation of Banta’s questionable expenditures.

Conservative Republican state Rep. Warren Petersen also reacted to the scandal by announcing he will introduce legislation to crack down on public officials who commit fraud and misappropriate public funds. “Termination from a high position in government office should not be like winning the Lotto,” Petersen said. He was referring to the fact that Banta will still be entitled to a $265,000 annuity that was part of his employment contract. There’s already a state law that disqualifies government employees convicted of felonies committed while they’re on the job from collecting a state retirement pension, but Petersen says his proposal will go further.

Joe Arpaio
Joe Arpaio (Phoenix New Times)

In the meantime, malfeasance by conservative Republican Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio since he assumed office in 1993 has cost county taxpayers an estimated $142 million in legal settlements, court awards and legal fees.

Furthermore, in 2013 U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow ruled that Arpaio’s office was guilty of violating the constitutional rights of Latino drivers by stopping them for essentially “driving while brown.” The judged ordered Arpaio’s office to cease using race or ancestry as a grounds to stop, detain or hold occupants of vehicles.

The sheriff’s office didn’t comply, so in January of 2015 Judge Snow announced he was initiating civil contempt charges against Arpaio for failing to follow his orders. One of the things that was revealed during the court testimony was that Arpaio paid at least $250,000 in public funds to a Seattle investigator before he figured out the investigator was a con artist. The plaintiffs in the case submitted evidence that Arpaio paid the investigator to see if Judge Snow was participating in a conspiracy against him. Mike Zullo, a member of one of Arpiao’s volunteer posses, oversaw the operation and testified in court that the investigation wasn’t intended to hurt the judge. Arpaio may have committed perjury too when he first denied any knowledge of the investigation and then later testified he knew about it. This prompted Judge Snow to declare in court that Arpaio, “has not been fully forthcoming with this court.” After testimony concluded in contempt hearings Judge Snow warned that a criminal contempt case my result from the testimony of Arpaio and his minions.

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which is controlled by Republicans, has failed to take any actions against Arpaio. Instead, they recently raised property taxes and one of the reasons was to help pay the additional bills the county has incurred as a result of Arpaio’s offensive behavior.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich hasn’t yet announced that he’s investigating Arpaio. The same can be said for conservative Republican Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.

It’s obvious there are two types of government scandals in Arizona, and local conservative politicians and media outlets are deciding which ones matter the most.


On November 8, 2016, Maricopa County voters finally wised-up to Sheriff Joe Arpaio and voted him out of office by a margin of 66 to 44 percent.

On July 31, 2017, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton found Joe Arpaio guilty of criminal contempt of court for violating a court order to stop racial profiling by his deputies.

On August 25, 2017, President Donald Trump pardoned former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

On September 10, 2018, former Valley Metro CEO Steve Banta pleaded guilty to misusing public money on dining and travel expenses.

On November 20, 2018, former Valley Metro CEO Steve Banta was sentenced to probation and a $6,000 fine.

A Simple Reality Check

I work in a downtown Phoenix office building, where the city’s air pollution is the worst, and every afternoon I get up from my desk to take a 15-minute walk. I usually hike the several stories of our parking garage in order to stay out of the sun. I often pass by the parked cars of my coworkers. Sometimes I like to write “WASH ME” with my finger in the grime on the back windows of their vehicles. It makes the end of my finger filthy black.

I had another air pollution reminder after we had a couple of days of rare rainy weather last week. The air was so clean that I found it remarkable how clearly I could see the surrounding mountains. It reminded me that it had been that way for thousands of years before mankind started generating energy by burning fossil fuels.

Modern urban dwellers have become so used to air pollution that we’ve practically forgotten how bad it is, and what it’s doing to us and our planet. That makes it easier for the corporate oligopolies, and the politicians they control, to distract us from the fact that one of our primary goals should be putting an end to air pollution as soon as possible.

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