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.