Proposition 105: A Light Rail Fact Check For Phoenix Voters

By Christina Estes, Steve Goldstein, Lauren Gilger
Published: Tuesday, August 13, 2019 - 2:13pm
Updated: Thursday, August 15, 2019 - 8:02am

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side of parked train
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Light rail train at the end of the line in Phoenix on Aug. 7, 2019.

Part I: The Arguments For And Against Light Rail

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Groups for and against light rail and Phoenix are pushing their messages extra hard. Early voting is already underway for an Aug. 27 election that could mark the end of the line or signal a green light to build more. KJZZ's Christina Estes joins me now to fact check some of the arguments for and against. So, Christina, let's quickly recap what led to this election.

CHRISTINA ESTES: Well, this started with some residents and business owners in south Phoenix who didn't want to see Central Avenue reduced from four lanes to two lanes to make room for light rail. It has since morphed into a full anti-light rail initiative. If voters approved Prop 105 it will stop the South Central extension as well as other future light rail projects.

GOLDSTEIN: I mean arguably the biggest complaint among light rail opponents is that it simply costs too much, and isn't it true that the cost for the South Central extension has in fact doubled?

ESTES: Can I answer this one yes and no? Technically the project cost has increased from an estimated $700 million to more than $1.3 billion.

GOLDSTEIN: Clearly there is more to this answer?

ESTES: There is. One of the reasons is higher construction costs both labor and materials, but the bigger reason is the addition of what's called "the downtown hub."

GOLDSTEIN: What is the hub then?

ESTES: It would be a centralized transfer station the 5 1/2-mile extension from downtown to south Phoenix is one project. The city is also working on a 2-mile extension west of downtown to the state Capitol complex. So a city staffer said rather than look at them as two separate projects let's look at the big picture.

transit security officers standing on train
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Valley Metro transit security officers riding light rail on Aug. 7, 2019.

GOLDSTEIN: And what did they see?

ESTES: They think having one hub where people can transfer and take trains in different directions will be more efficient for users. Building a downtown hub will add roughly $300 million to the total cost. In addition to that, Valley Metro CEO Scott Smith told the Arizona Republic the federal government has decreased its share of funding. In 2017 Phoenix expected the federal government to cover about 58% of the total cost and now it's more like 47%.

GOLDSTEIN: Another argument from light rail opponents is that the money could be spent on roads and sidewalks. Is that accurate?

ESTES: Some of the money planned for light rail could go to other transportation projects if approved by the City Council. Here's how the funding breaks down for the South Central extension which includes that new downtown hub: 32% comes from a transit sales tax approved by Phoenix voters. That's the money that could go to other projects if the council approved. The next funding source is the regional sales tax that covers transportation projects. It makes up 21% of funding and can only be used for rail.

GOLDSTEIN: OK, so if the math is correct, then that does leave that 47% which you said comes from the federal government?

ESTES: That's right. And that 47% can only be used for the South Central extension. Supporters of light rail like to say hey we would lose hundreds of millions in funds if you vote to end light rail, while opponents say, well, you can't really lose what you never get.

GOLDSTEIN: So the city's share, 32%, is still a real sizable amount, that's around $400 million.

ESTES: Right, and we've talked before about the condition of Phoenix roads, it's one of the top complaints council members get. The Street Transportation Department on 70% of Phoenix streets are considered fair, poor or very poor.

GOLDSTEIN: And you've already reported on the council approving $450 million for an accelerated pavement maintenance program.

ESTES: Yeah and that's another point the pro light retailers like to bring up. They like to say, "Hey, the city is addressing streets." On the flip side the anti-light railers point out the Street Transportation Department said to get all Phoenix streets in good condition would cost $1.6 billion. It is also important to mention that 2015 voter approved transit sales tax is designed to not only help fund light rail but also street repairs and bus service.

GOLDSTEIN: OK, that brings us to another argument among light rail opponents that more people drive and ride the bus than use light rail. Opponents say it's a huge expense to serve a small number of people in Phoenix. Light rail attracts about 50,000 riders each weekday. What did you find looking at the numbers?

respect the ride sign
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Sign on the platform at 38th Street and Washington in Phoenix.

ESTES: Valley Metro's most recent performance report covers fiscal year 2017-18. Before I get to the numbers, keep in mind every time a person steps inside a bus or a light rail car, that counts as one boarding. For example, last week I took the train, and I counted as two boardings because I got on one car heading one way and switched cars to return.

GOLDSTEIN: So clearly there was a celebrity sighting on the light rail, but let's go back to how the round trip equals two boardings. OK, so we can have that, so what's the report show?

ESTES: For the year, bus boardings increased more than a million to 51 million, while light rail boardings decreased roughly half a million to just under 16 million.

GOLDSTEIN: And then what about operating costs?

ESTES: Well, there are a few ways operating costs are broken out. I like to look at what's called "operating subsidy per boarding." So that's how much it costs to operate after subtracting fares and we should note that public transportation is subsidized in every city exactly how much can vary.

GOLDSTEIN: And what did you find?

ESTES: For buses the operating subsidy per boarding is $4.64. So that's how much public money is needed to cover the costs associated with one bus rider. For light rail It’s $1.97. In both cases operating subsidies have increased significantly since 2016, about 60 cents for rail and almost $1 for the bus.

GOLDSTEIN: And that is KJZZ's Christina Estes. Thank you, as always.

ESTES: You're welcome.

GOLDSTEIN: And tomorrow on The Show, Christina will tell us about a longtime Phoenix resident who lives near the light rail line and is unsure about which way to vote.

workers at box
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Workers try to fix a malfunctioning fare box on Aug. 7, 2019.

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Part 2: Is Light Rail Really Behind $11 Billion In Investment?

LAUREN GILGER: With early voting underway for the Aug. 27 election that will decide whether to cancel future light rail extensions in Phoenix, we’ve been taking a closer look this week at arguments both for and against the transportation system. And for that, we're joined now by KJZZ’s Christina Estes joins. Good morning, Christina.

CHRISTINA ESTES: Good morning, Lauren.

GILGER:  OK, so yesterday you broke down funding sources, ridership figures and operating costs for us. And today, you want to dive into one figure in particular here. What is that?

ESTES: It’s $11 billion, the amount light rail supporters use as a measure of success. In its economic development brochure, Valley Metro says $11 billion in public and private investment has been made along the line since 2005. It’s important to note that light rail did not open until December 2008.

stopped train at platform
Christina Estes/ KJZZ
Valley Metro trains start first full trip at 4:30 a.m. weekdays.

GILGER: So, why are projects included three years before the line opened?

ESTES: Well, because certain people knew it was coming. For example, developers were talking about light rail before it opened because they knew the city was using eminent domain to buy private property, and contractors started working pretty quickly after the funding agreement was signed in 2005.

GILGER: OK, so you got a hold of Valley Metro’s database of development projects that it attributes to light rail. What’d you find?

ESTES: The database includes 344 projects Valley Metro says are located within a half a mile of the light rail line. The projects are either currently under construction or completed going back to 2005. With the exception of one project — it dates back to 2002 — that was three years before construction started.

GILGER: What’s that one?

ESTES: The first phase of Hayden Ferry Lakeside in Tempe. Today, it’s a big mixed use development along Tempe Town Lake. But its first building opened in 2002 and accounts for more than $21 million in Valley Metro’s database. There are also several projects that someone could argue would have happened anyway without light rail.

GILGER: Like what?

ESTES: In 2005 and 2006 in Tempe, two buildings went up as part of ASU’s Biodesign Institute. Those buildings add up to $150 million in Valley Metro’s database. There’s also the Phoenix Art Museum’s expansion completed in 2006. That appears in the database as an $18 million redevelopment project.

GILGER: OK, so what’s the biggest item in this database?

ESTES: The $600 million expansion of the Phoenix Convention Center. It started in the early 2000s and wrapped up just in time for light rail’s opening in 2008. Supporters say light rail was a critical part of downtown’s transformation, and it’ll be good for other areas too. Of course, not everyone buys that.

Security camera on platform
Christina Estes/KJZZ
A security camera on the platform at 19th and Dunlap avenues in Phoenix.

GILGER: Right, we’ve heard concerns from people in south Phoenix especially about construction hurting small businesses there.

ESTES: There’s no doubt some businesses will not survive. We have seen that happen. I can tell you the city and Valley Metro have set aside additional money to support south Phoenix businesses during construction through marketing and advertising services and offering low-interest loans.

GILGER: What about concerns that light rail will bring more crime to neighborhoods? We hear that a lot as well.

ESTES: Yep. That’s also something we’ve heard in areas with light rail. For example, along 19th Avenue, residents have complained a lot about inappropriate and illegal behavior on the trains and platforms. About two years ago, we reported on a large increase in calls to police along 19th Avenue. Trespassing, shoplifting and thefts were among the most common calls.

GILGER: OK, and refresh our memory. How did Phoenix police and Valley Metro respond to all of that?

ESTES: Police increased patrols, and Valley Metro added more private security officers. And I noticed those security officers when I rode light rail last week.

GILGER: What was it like?

ESTES: It was like riding public transportation. It’s mass transit, so it's open to everyone. I saw great diversity. And not just race and ethnicity, but also people who use wheelchairs and people who carried their bicycles on.

wheelchair user on train
Christina Estes/KJZZ
A wheelchair user looks out the train during a ride in Phoenix on August 7, 2019.

GILGER: What route did you take?

ESTES: I got on at 19th Avenue and Dunlap, rode through downtown to 38th Street and Washington.

GILGER: So, the train picked up and dropped off a lot people along the way, I'm sure?

ESTES: Yeah, and most people were quiet and in their own world, but there was also the guy talking really loudly on his phone, another guy who sat next to me with really strong cologne. Again, it’s public transit, so you have variety.

GILGER: Let’s move on to your conversation with a longtime Phoenix resident who lives near the 19th Avenue light rail line. Did she tell you how she’s planning to vote?

ESTES: When we talked late last week, she was still torn. I didn’t record the conversation, and I’m not using her name because she’s been active in the community for a long time. She works with the city on neighborhood projects and doesn’t want to risk hurting those relationships.

GILGER: Got it. So, why is she torn about the future of this light rail extension?

ESTES: In her view, light rail has not been a positive experience for her neighborhood, so in one sense she wants to vote for Prop. 105, which would end future projects. On the other hand, she says she doesn’t want her area to be the end of the line because she worries it’ll create a ‘dead end’ environment.

GILGER: But 19th Avenue has seen improvements since the 3-mile extension opened three years ago, right?

ESTES: It has. Some well known restaurant chains have opened, and some of the established neighborhoods around 15th Avenue and 21st Avenue are seeing more market rate housing being built. But that’s not enough to convince a resident I talked to last night after he filled out his ballot.

GILGER: How did he vote?

ESTES: He voted for Prop 105.

GILGER: And why? What was his reasoning?

19North sign through train door
Christina Estes/KJZZ
19NORTH is a designated stop for light rail in Phoenix along 19th and Northern avenues.

ESTES: For one, he says it’s inconvenient for most people to use. Over the weekend, he said was going to take it from 19th Ave. in Phoenix to Washington Street and MIll Avenue in Tempe. Going one way, he said the train would’ve stopped 21 times and taken 52 minutes, so he just ended up driving. He also thinks construction takes too long and is too disruptive. He thinks express buses are a cheaper, faster alternative.

GILGER: We’ve heard light rail opponents argue that changing technology could mean fewer people use light rail in the future. What does Valley Metro say about that?

ESTES: A spokesperson told me in the future, Valley Metro will continue to advance a network of transportation options — including rideshare and autonomous vehicles — to support quick growth and limited real estate. She said high capacity transit is and will be the most effective way to move large numbers of people in finite spaces.

GILGER: All right. And that's KJZZ’s Christina Estes filling us in on all the debate around Prop. 105 and the future of the light rail here. Christina, thank you.

ESTES: You’re welcome.

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