Faced with a $6.6 billion highway funding deficit and a $1.7 billion bus and light-rail money shortfall, the Maricopa Association of Governments, the Arizona Department of Transportation and Valley Metro met Tuesday night to get the public’s feedback on proposed changes to a 20-year Maricopa County regional transportation plan to close the gap.
The changes would affect freeway and transit projects, which use money from a voter-approved half-cent sales tax. That could mean projects deferred or reduced bus service and construction of transit facilities.
The deficit is a result of sales tax revenues dipping and higher than anticipated construction costs early into the program. So the MAG transportation policy committee is exploring changes to plans originally approved by county voters back in 2004, when the half-cent sales tax to fund transit and freeway construction was extended by 20 years.
“We wanted to make sure the public was aware of the changes being planned on projects they voted to fund,” said MAG spokeswoman Kelly Taft.
About 50 people attended the meeting. Among those was Mesa resident Mike Smith, who urged officials to maintain mass transit routes for those like him, who depend on it to get around the Valley. Sitting on a wheelchair, Smith said he’s concerned about cuts to paratransit and regular bus and light-rail service.
Earlier, Paul Hodgins, Valley Metro manager of capital programs, told the audience that among options being debated to deal with the deficit are cuts to bus service frequency to every 30 minutes.
Smith said he hoped the cuts would be minimal and across the board.
“If it has to happen, at least do it equally for mass transit and highway programs,” Smith said.
Another Mesa resident, Richard Tracy, expressed his disappointment at the decision earlier this year to extend light rail through downtown Mesa. He said he would have much preferred it to go south toward Fiesta Mall, then head east to Gilbert and Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.
“We, the people, never got a chance to vote on the extension,” Tracy said. “That would have been the real corridor of the future.”
Overall, Tracy criticized regional transit planning for not helping urban renewal across the Valley.
“Government has caused most of the transportation problems by not using common sense and building up the inner-city area,” Tracy said.
On state Route 802 planned near Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, construction on the Ellsworth Road to Meridian Drive corridor would be deferred beyond 2026 for savings of about $288 million.
A traffic interchange next to the airport and an interim roadway between that interchange and Ellsworth Road would be constructed, but the rest of the 802 freeway would be deferred, according to Bob Hazlett, senior engineer at MAG. One reason, said Hazlett, is there’s no defined plans for where the 802 is going to go into Pinal County and there’s no funding for the 802 in Pinal County.
“By going ahead with these changes, we wanted to get the facility constructed between Ellsworth Road and the Santan Freeway (Loop 202), so Mesa can move forward with improvements in the Mesa proving ground, and the airport terminal expansion to the east can happen,” Hazlett said.
On the Santan Freeway from U.S. 60 to Interstate 10, MAG is recommending deferring a general purpose lane.
The idea is to build the high-occupancy vehicle lanes first because only the medians need to be closed, and they’re the cheapest to construct. So more general purpose lanes could be deferred, Hazlett said.
Total savings by deferral? About $285 million.
On the Loop 202 Red Mountain Freeway from Gilbert Road to U.S. 60, direct HOV ramps could be deferred for savings of $247 million.
Hazlett said a lot of the projects that are planned for deferrals were scheduled for construction between 2021 and 2026. They’re now being deferred to between 2026 and 2031, beyond the 20-year extension.
“There’s a reasonable assumption that the half-cent sales tax would continue, subject to voter approval, of course,” Hazlett said.
The initial projections when voters approved the extension went haywire once construction costs went up in 2007 and 2008. Then the economy tanked and sales tax revenues went south, compounding the problem. But with the current economic downturn, MAG also hopes to accelerate some projects, to take advantage of the current economic downturn and lower bids.
Other money-saving ideas include deferring interchange construction on the U.S. 60 and Lindsay Road, and also on the Red Mountain Freeway and Mesa Drive.
To tackle the bus and light-rail deficits, a committee has been set up to address the shortfall, but no specific recommendations have come out of that yet on what cuts or delays could be made, according to Valley Metro spokesman Scott Wisner.
For more information on the proposed changes, visit: