Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Proposition 105, a ballot measure funded in part by groups tied to the Koch brothers, threatens to halt long-planned extensions to the booming Arizona city’s transit system.
In August 2015, voters in Phoenix approved Transportation 2050, a $31.5 billion sales tax measure that would add 42 miles of new light rail, bus rapid transit, and a host of new stations to the greater metro area. It was the third time in 20 years that residents had opted to expand the Valley Metro Rail system.
The existing network, which opened in 2008, was considered a runaway success. Ridership and revenues on the 26 miles connecting Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa far outstripped planners’ original projections. Today, roughly 50,000 riders use the system daily, which has been credited with helping spark an economic resurgence in downtown Phoenix.
“We’ve had more than $10 billion of public and private investment along the light rail line,” said Greg Stanton, the Arizona congressman who stepped down as mayor of Phoenix in 2018. “Transit has made us a more urban environment. It gets us closer to our climate goals than anything will. It’s changed Phoenix in ways that nothing else ever has, and support for it has only grown around the Valley.”
But this month, voters are getting a fourth chance to decide their transportation futures. This time, they’ll be asked to halt the city’s remarkable rail momentum.
Proposition 105, a measure backed by a group called Building a Better Phoenix, would halt all future light rail expansions, directing already-earmarked tax dollars toward “other transportation improvements”—mostly road construction. Like a number of efforts to kill urban-rail plans around the U.S., the initiative to stop Phoenix’s transit development has ties to Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group funded by David H. Koch and Charles Koch, as an investigation by the Phoenix New Times revealed this week.
But this effort to derail transit in the fast-growing southwestern metropolis didn’t start with the Kochs, the petro-barons whose immense wealth has funded a variety of conservative and libertarian political interests. It began with a seed of frustration among locals along South Central Avenue, which runs through a working-class section of Phoenix that is predominantly Latino and African-American. There, Valley Metro Rail planned to remove two traffic lanes to build 5.5 miles of light rail track. Worried that construction and a lack of space for cars would deter customers, a small group of business owners organized last year to demand the transit agency adjust their plans for the South Phoenix area.
“I oppose light rail [because] it will take down business, and be tough on business owners along South Central,” Margot Bunten, a local Ace Hardware franchise owner, said on Twitter. “Traffic will be worse later on.”
But by last fall, the pushback about these two lost lanes morphed into an assault on fixed transit’s existence anywhere in the city of Phoenix. Championed by Sal DiCiccio, a city council member who is a longtime foe of light rail, and advised by Scot Mussi of the Arizona Free Enterprise Club (a right-wing political advocacy group backed by AFP), a broader group, Building a Better Phoenix, is pushing voters to reject light rail across the board.
In news reports, Mussi has downplayed his role in Prop 105. But the New Times investigation indicates that Mussi helped draft the language in the ballot measure, helped arrange for the collection of the 20,000-plus signatures required to put the question to a special election, and registered the “Building a Better Phoenix” domain name.
The group’s rationales include many of the same anti-transit refrains heard in city council meetings around the country: that rail transit is a boondoggle that costs taxpayers billions and serves just a small share of the commuting public, while Phoenix’s potholed roads could use the money instead. Studies have countered these arguments with evidence that rail transit can reduce congestion, traffic deaths, and increase access to economic opportunities. The environmental benefits of this lower-carbon transportation option also bear consideration (especially in a city that hit 115 degrees again this week).
But in Phoenix, rail resistance has also emerged from activists who say that the system will displace longtime residents in favor of more affluent renters and owners who can afford transit-adjacent housing costs. “It’s a way of attracting money for investment,” Sal Reza, a longtime human rights organizer in Phoenix, told Phoenix magazine. “Not to invest in the community, but to change the community totally.”
Meanwhile, transit supporters—including new mayor Kate Gallego—have come out in force in response to Prop 105. “It’s up to us to protect the future of light rail and build the transportation system of tomorrow,” Gallego said in her inaugural address earlier this year. Since the measure would block light rail from being built in Phoenix into the future, it would have repercussions for the rest of the Valley, as many of Valley Metro’s planned extensions into other parts of the sprawling urban area have to connect through its largest city. There are large sums of public funds on the line, with hundreds of millions of local tax dollars already invested, and $600 million in federal funding that could be revoked.
What’s more, stopping the rail extension in South Phoenix would squelch hopes of correcting the equity mistakes the city made with its original light rail plans, which failed to adequately serve Phoenix’s lower-income neighborhoods, said Stanton. To feed the idea that light rail won’t be a boon for Phoenix residents, Building a Better Phoenix has been broadcasting locals willing to share their fears and stigmas attached to public transit: “I recently lost tire to a pothole on city street so I prefer asphalt to a train that I hear requires people be armed for their own safety & that people occasionally ride without pants,” tweeted one local.
Yet Stanton and other rail supporters say that they feel confident that the future of Phoenix’s light rail is secure in the face of Proposition 105. “Even in South Phoenix, which is the line that got controversial, [the original 2015 transit measure] was supported by three-to-one margin,” he said. “Even though there is organic and legitimate opposition, it represents a significant minority.”
The election in March of Gallego, an outspoken transit champion, is another sign that voters have made their transportation priorities clear, Stanton said. Around the U.S., public transit sales tax measures have overwhelmingly passed on local ballots from L.A. to Indianapolis in the last few years.
But even if voters reject Proposition 105, the episode might have some lessons for outside observers. David King, a professor of urban planning at Arizona State University, told the Arizona Republic in April that Proposition 105 shows how hard it can be for agencies to make long-term plans for transit systems based on ballot-approved sales tax initiatives, since they can be so easily reversed. “Direct democracy is not necessarily good for planning,” he said.
Maria Hyatt, chair of the Arizona nonprofit Friends of Transit and a Phoenix-based planner whose firm is involved with the light-rail buildout, worries that the maneuverings by Koch affiliates in Phoenix may represent a new strategy by anti-transit crusaders. Unlike Nashville, Little Rock, and other locales where Koch forces have helped stops transit projects from getting off the ground, light rail is well underway in Phoenix. The city’s ballot initiative will now be a test case for whether transit foes can stop a train that’s already left the station.
”Where does it go from there if they’re successful here?” she wondered of the effort’s backers. “Citizens should be able to say to whatever their plans are, and not have outside entities come in and sway the process by putting a lot of money towards it. It is just completely wrong.”