Phoenix Citizen’s Transportation Advisory Committee

Phoenix metro light rail
Phoenix metro light rail (Wikipedia)

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton recently announced the formation of a municipal transportation advisory committee to focus on increasing the public transportation services available to working class and young people by expanding the light rail system and extending bus routes.

The light rail system opened in 2008 and has been a tremendous success. Its ridership has exceeded all expectations. Billions of dollars have been invested in development projects along the rail corridor, and it’s provided transportation for people who can’t afford a car, or don’t want to have to buy one. It’s also helped to reduce air pollution from automobiles.

The goal of the Phoenix committee is to draft a municipal transportation plan that can be sent to the city’s voters to approve a new sales tax to fund its implementation. Although Phoenix has an existing voter-approved transportation sales tax in place as a result of the passage of municipal Proposition 2000 in March, 2000, it expires in 2020 and the revenue it’s generated has fallen short of expectations by about $1 billion due to the Great Recession.

Phoenix also receives transportation funding from a sales tax approved by Maricopa County voters when they passed county Proposition 400 in 2004. But only 17% of this money can be spent on buses, and only 15% on light-rail. The majority of this money, about 57%, must be spent on freeway construction. Loop 303 on the west side of metro Phoenix, however, is almost complete. And the only other local freeway that still needs to be built is the South Mountain Freeway, which will significantly reduce congestion and air pollution on the urban portions of Interstate 10 by allowing commercial truck traffic to bypass downtown Phoenix.

I suggest that another initiative should be drafted to allow more of the Proposition 400 funds to be allocated to alternative transportation. Everybody living and working in Maricopa County would benefit from a better public transportation system, so the burden of paying for it shouldn’t fall disproportionately on Phoenix residents.

Yes, It’s Hot in Arizona

sonoran desert national monument, arizona
Sonoran Desert National Monument, AZ (Jeff Burgess)

The temperature exceeded 110 degrees this afternoon here in metro Phoenix and it’s supposed to do it again tomorrow. This is the time of year when all of our friends and relatives living in the Midwest or back East take their revenge for the smart aleck text messages that we sent them to during their cold winter months.

Most of us Sonoran Desert dwellers don’t consider the weather to be too warm until it hits 100 degrees or more because the low humidity makes the heat more bearable. When it reaches about 105 it’s getting hot. When it hits 110 it’s really hot, and when it’s 115 or higher it’s scorching. (Yes, it usually gets hotter than 115 at least a couple of days each summer.) It’s difficult to describe how it feels to walk outside in the sun when it’s 110 or more. I think the best analogy would be that it’s like putting your head in a pizza oven.

Some people claim that putting up with our summer heat isn’t much different than having to put up with freezing winter weather. There are some similarities. But in cold weather you can put on warm clothes and survive. During the summer in the Sonoran Desert, however, there isn’t any level of clothing that can save you from the heat. You have to have a large supply of drinking water to stay outside for more than a couple of hours. It’s simple physics. Still, every summer there are a couple of tourists or newcomers who go out in the daytime heat for too long without  enough water. The results are corpses too desiccated to rot.

But most Phoenicians will agree that the real danger from the summer heat is the drivers that don’t have air conditioning in their vehicles. The local rush hour traffic is bad enough to make commuters crazy, but things can get scary when extreme heat is added to the equation. If you’ve lived here through at least one summer you know to avoid driving close to vehicles that have their windows rolled down on hot afternoons.

Some drivers without air conditioning are more dangerous than others. Those that drive Hummers, Lincoln Navigators, and Cadillac Escalades are among the worst. That’ because they’re irrational people. They were willing to spend a lot of money to buy a low-mileage, luxury SUV that they’ll probably never drive on a dirt road, but were too cheap to pay to have it outfitted with air conditioning.

The very worst drivers without air conditioning, however, are minivan drivers. Although they’re driving behavior is a year-round a problem.

Reducing Poverty in America

dollar signThe U.S. Census Bureau recently released new poverty statistics which showed that about 16% of Americans, or about 50 million people, lived in poverty in 2012. These higher numbers should provoke discussions about the ongoing destruction of middle class. But they will also lead to calls for increasing government funding of poverty programs.

But spending more money on existing programs won’t necessarily improve the situation. I know because I used to be a welfare caseworker. My firsthand experience was that, while keeping bad situations from getting worse, our public assistance programs also breed dependency, thus perpetuating cycles of poverty. In fact, I often felt the real purpose of our welfare system was just to allow most people to feel like they’re doing something to help poor people.

I believe our public assistance programs should focus more on removing barriers that prevent people from being self sufficient. I know this isn’t an original idea, but I think my firsthand experience gives me better insight into how to accomplish it. Some of my suggestions have already been implemented in some form in various places. But I think the following list should become the primary focus of our nation’s welfare system.

Poor People Need Affordable Transportation and Day Care

First, the primary obstacle to employment for poor parents with young children is the lack of safe and affordable day care. We can make the most difference with increased public welfare funding by putting the money into day care subsidies.

The next biggest employment obstacle for poor people is the lack of reliable and affordable transportation to get to their workplaces. We need to put more money into public transportation. People shouldn’t have to be able to afford to drive a car legally as a precondition for employment. Many poor people get ticketed for driving a car without current registration or insurance. Often, they can’t afford to pay the fines and this starts them on a downward spiral with the legal system, which reduces their chances of keeping or getting a decent job.

Most of the people living in poverty in America are children, and one of the primary reasons is an absent parent that isn’t contributing to their support – typically a man. We need to beef up funding for child support prosecutions. Many states are already doing this with significant success. But we need to create an environment where deadbeat dads know they will be quickly brought to justice and required to help pay for their children. A national media campaign would help.

And finally, we shouldn’t mess with Social Security or Medicare. The Census Bureau’s new poverty statistics show that if it weren’t for Social Security, the poverty rate among seniors 65 and older would rise to about 55%.

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