Three paths emerged for the Valley’s $15.8 billion transportation plan at the Legislature, where lawmakers on Wednesday unveiled a trio of competing bills on how to deal with the lightning rod issue of light rail.
The bill with the most support would let voters decide the plan May 18, the date supported by Valley mayors and Maricopa 2020, a group formed to boost the plan.
Critics of light rail are pushing bills that delay the vote until November, require a separate vote on light rail or remove light rail entirely.
Other than the date and rail issue, the bills call for the same mix of freeway, road and bus projects to be funded through a 20-year extension of Maricopa County’s halfcent transportation sales tax.
Lawmakers will hold hearings on the bills today.
"We need to make sure we put forth what the voters can accept," said Rep. Gary Pierce, R-Mesa and chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
Pierce sponsored the bill with the May 18 election proposal, HB2456.
That bill has enough support in the House of Representatives, where more than the required 40 members have signed on, Pierce said. But in the Senate, the bill is six votes short of the 20 required for a special election in May.
One of the alternate bills would ask voters to support the overall plan, but a followup question would ask if they support building nearly 28 miles of rail at a cost of $2.2 billion. Also, HB2376 requires a November vote.
Sen. Thayer Verschoor, RGilbert, supports that bill because he opposes the $3 million cost of a special election in May. Also, he wants the plan to reach voters when the presidential election and other issues will boost turnout.
Verschoor said rail is a poor transit mode that should have to stand on its own before voters, who might only like the rest of the plan.
"The light rail is the least effective way of spending those tax dollars," Verschoor said.
A third bill would drop rail entirely and spread that money among other modes. HB2489 has support from Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, who described light rail as a trolley that doesn’t deserve funding for extensions unless an initial section that opens in 2006 proves itself.
Despite differences on rail, the bills show wide support for the basic plan that was developed after a year of tense negotiations among Valley mayors.
One key issue — addressed in the three bills — is that the state’s auditor general would have to oversee audits of the system’s performance every five years. That was developed to address concerns over the cost of rail projects and the system’s lack of a track record in the Valley.
Major changes would require a majority vote by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, the State Board of Transportation and the Regional Public Transportation Authority. Alternately, members on a regional Transportation Policy Committee could make a major change if 17 of its 22 members supported it.