Maricopa County’s Transportation Plan Is Outdated

phoenix arizona freeway
(Wikipedia)

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.

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.

White Noise

It reminds you of the sound of distant, rolling thunder when it first becomes audible. But as it quickly moves toward you, it gets louder, and sounds more like the roar of a jet airplane taking off. Then, as it passes by, you feel the floor rumble like a minor earthquake. And after that, it’s quickly gone.

But only, of course, until another subway train passes beneath the New York City street where you’re apartment is located. The trains traveling in the opposite direction on the other side of the street aren’t as loud. And during the nights and weekends the frequency of the trains decreases. But you don’t notice or care, because it’s just another source of the near-constant stream of white noise that’s part of your life.

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