State officials now are openly admitting extending the Valley's half-cent transportation sales tax for another 20 years won't pay for everybody's wish lists. Although that became obvious well over a year ago, getting politicians to admit unpleasant truths is progress of a sort.
The choice now is to either ask Valley residents to dig deeper to pay for all the transit projects, or to trim the wish lists to a performance-based set of priorities that is within budget. In our view, by far the best option is the latter.
The more than $9 billion that an extension of the transportation tax would bring in, coupled with other sources of revenue, will buy a lot of people-moving infrastructure — if spent wisely. Spent foolishly, however, even a doubling of the sales tax wouldn't be enough.
That is why it is disappointing, to say the least, to hear state Rep. Gary Pierce, R-Mesa and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, say he's willing to consider the tax-increase option. Pierce, who also is co-chairman of a legislative committee crafting a Valley-wide transportation plan, told Tribune writer Garin Groff that geographic inequities in the plan could undermine East Valley support, and that he would be open to a tax hike if it resulted in a more equitable proposal.
Normally a fiscal conservative and well-versed on transportation issues, Pierce should be leading the drive for performance-based priorities that are geographically equitable. He should not be pushing for a tax increase just to pacify interest groups that want the transportation plan larded with expensive and wasteful projects.
And none is more wasteful than the light rail proposal pushed tirelessly by Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza as a way to funnel more people from the east and west sides of the Valley into his economically sluggish central city.
Sadly, Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano and Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker have embraced the light rail boondoggle even though its cost per passenger mile is far higher than bus rapid transit, which could move far more commuters to and from many more destinations throughout the Valley — if it is adequately funded.
The main mistake many metro areas have made in trying to meet transportation challenges is launching too many transit modes, and then ending up shortchanging most or all of them. The Valley has a golden opportunity to learn from the expensive mistakes of those other metro areas and forge a truly cost-effective transportation plan.
Pierce and other Valley transportation officials who really care about moving people in the most cost-effective manner should insist that finishing the freeway system, including HOV lanes on every segment, be top priority, followed by creation of a comprehensive, Valley-wide bus rapid transit system utilizing those HOV lanes.
Improvements to the Valley's arterial system, including adding lanes and synchronizing traffic signals, also must be a high priority, along with significantly improving the Valley's local bus and Dial-A-Ride services.
Those performance-based priorities can be met by extending the half-cent transportation tax, and they would be deserving of voters' approval. Trying to fulfill every transit wish, on the other hand, would be a costly mistake that voters would be wise to reject.