Maricopa County’s Transportation Plan Is Outdated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.

The Truth About Proposition 104

Phoenix metro light rail
Phoenix metro light rail (Wikipedia)

On August 25, 2015, Phoenix voters will be asked to approve Proposition 104, a 0.7% sales tax increase to help fund a 35 year urban transportation plan that will spend $31.5 billion from various sources to improve the city’s mass transit, add alternative transportation options, and help rebuild roads.

Phoenix already has a voter-approved transportation sales tax in place as a result of the passage of municipal Proposition 2000 in March of 2000. But it expires in 2020 and city leaders explain that the the revenue it’s generated has been inadequate due to the Great Recession. They say that achieving world-class status as a 21st century city depends on a modern transportation system, and they point to the success of the metropolitan area’s new light rail system, which they claim has generated more than $7 billion in development in the urban core along the train’s route.

Opponents of Proposition 104 are employing the usual anti-tax arguments, but the focus of their criticism is the transportation plan’s proposal to to extend the light rail system. They argue that light rail constitutes an unfair subsidy to a form of transportation used by a minority of the city’s taxpayers. This implies that freeway drivers aren’t subsidized – which is nonsense.

Transportation Spending Should Fund Transportation – Not Real Estate Development

For example, Phoenix also receives transportation funding from a sales tax approved by Maricopa County voters when they passed county Proposition 400 in 2004. The revenue generated by this tax heavily subsidizes freeways, as the proposition requires that about 57% of the money collected must be spent on freeway construction. You probably assume that all of this money is being spent to alleviate the terrible traffic congestion that occurs on the inner city stretches of metro Phoenix’s freeways during rush hour. But that’s not the case.

In June, for instance, the Arizona Department of Transportation announced the opening of a new freeway interchange at 64th Street in far north Phoenix. The department spent $23 million building the interchange in 2008, even though there wasn’t a road to connect to it. Then they spent another $7.42 million starting in 2013 to connect it to a road.

Another example is the Loop 303 in the far West Valley. The total cost for Loop 303 is estimated to be about $1.8 billion, and its proponents  proudly proclaim its primary purpose is to promote real estate development in the largely undeveloped far West Valley.

The truth is that all forms of transportation are subsidized by the government because building public infrastructure is one of a government’s primary responsibilities. The difference between building freeways on the edge town and light rail in the center of town is that light rail directly benefits the city’s existing residents – the people who are paying the taxes.

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