Crushing gridlock. Taxpayer boondoggle.
The rhetoric over a regional transportation tax ramped up Wednesday as opposing forces began campaigns for and against a $15.8 billion proposal for new freeways, roads, buses and light rail in the Valley.
Voters will decide on the plan Nov. 2, and with the primary election out of the way, both sides picked Wednesday to call attention to their efforts on Proposition 400.
Supporters have touted their plan since January, but a new group started Wednesday that includes former Gov. Fife Symington and several conservative lawmakers. Their target is mass transit, which gets 32 percent of the funding. In particular, they branded light rail a boondoggle that diverts money from projects that more people would use.
Supporters dismissed the critics as naysayers who would attack any mass transit plan.
“What it’s really about is people who just don’t want us to be investing in the future,” Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon said.
The plan requires Maricopa County voters to extend a 20-year, half-cent sales tax that expires at the end of 2005. About 98 percent of the current tax paid for freeways, but the extension would reduce that to 55 percent and boost transit.
The plan took two years of often heated political wrangling to assemble as city and community leaders fought for more in their municipalities. Gordon said it might be impossible to draft an alternative if voters turn down the plan.
“We have to pass it this year,” Gordon said. “There is no other choice.”
Proposition 400 would reduce congestion 54 percent vs. a no-build scenario, Gordon said. Projects include:
•344 lane miles of new or improved freeways.
•275 lane miles of new or improved streets.
•1,200 new bus pullouts.
•40 new regional bus routes.
•27.7 new miles of light rail.
Supporters said the plan is vital to the Valley’s economy because it will prevent gridlock that can cripple a community’s economy.
“This is the largest economic development bill that’s come forward in the last 20 years,” said Yes on 400 chairman Doug Pruitt, also chairman of Sundt Construction.
The Yes on 400 campaign has 4,000 supporters, which members said is unprecedented for a group that has just staged its first major event. The group has raised $2 million.
No on 400 chairman Dave Thompson argued that voters should reject the plan to force transportation officials to draft a proposal with more freeways. The light rail and bus components will get 30 percent of the funds, which he said should be shifted to build 100 additional freeway lane miles.
“We can’t afford to divert 30 percent of the resources into something that supports 3 percent of the commuters,” Thompson said.
The plan fails to include projects in Pinal County, which will grow by 1 million people by 2025, Thompson said.
Thompson predicted the plan will require more than the $2.3 billion planned for light-rail construction. Ten of the last 11 rail projects in the nation were over budget, he said.
“This is a recipe for future tax increases,” Thompson said.
A revamped plan should include improvements to the bottlenecked U.S. 60 in Tempe, and double-deck freeways in central Phoenix, Thompson said.
Plan supporter Rep. Gary Pierce, R-Mesa, said legislation requires performance audits every five years, which could kill future rail projects if existing sections are deemed a failure.
The founder of satellite maker Spectrum Astro, Thompson recently sold the Gilbert company for $37 million. He declined to say how much money his group will spend.
Thompson’s Vote No on 400 counts Symington as an adviser. The group is likely the most formidable of anti-Proposition 400 efforts, as other groups have little funding.
The group has support from several conservative Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa, Rep. Ray Barnes, R-Scottsdale, and Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa.
Thompson said Proposition 400 fails to address the Valley’s freeway needs and ignores the importance of drivers’ attachment to their automobiles.
“People are wedded to their cars,” he said. “They’re not going to give them up.”