The Maricopa Association of Governments has an opportunity today to correct several serious flaws in its 20-year transportation plan for the Valley. With so much at stake — $17.1 billion and our ability to get around — it is imperative that MAG's Transportation Policy Committee eliminate the defects when it meets today to approve the plan.
The most glaring flaws are:
- Failure to address transportation needs in the far East Valley, which extends deep into Pinal County. Because the MAG plan stops at the county line, continued strong growth between Apache Junction on the north and Florence on the south will undermine mobility in the East Valley.
- The squandering of nearly half the plan's mass transit budget on just 37 miles of light rail — with no money left over to operate such a system. Mass transit dollars would be better spent on bus rapid transit, which is about half as expensive as rail to build and operate, and it wouldn't necessitate tearing out precious traffic lanes for tracks.
- An imbalance of projects that shortchanges the East Valley by $300 million. One result is an inadequate number of improvements to major arterial streets to avoid a 350 percent increase in traffic congestion projected by MAG planners over the next 20 years.
The first flaw — ignoring Pinal County — should be enough to make East Valley residents skeptical about the plan's cost effectiveness as they go to the polls in May. Somehow the gap needs to be closed — either through an agreement with Pinal County or by legislative mandate. Creation of a Valley transportation taxing district that includes northwestern Pinal County also would be an option.
The light-rail issue is just as serious because so much money would be wasted — about $2.2 billion — with so little return in terms of moving people. Thankfully, MAG is under a legislative mandate to make sure the plan is performance-based, and light rail can't possibly pass that test. If MAG fails to drop light rail, the Legislature should do so before putting it on the ballot.
And by dumping light rail, MAG or the Legislature also would free up enough money to correct the geographic imbalance. By one estimate, it would make available $500 million for additional street widening projects and bus routes.
MAG should rise to the challenge and fix the plan before asking voters to extend the half-cent transportation sales tax. Doing nothing invites defeat.