Republican plan to renew Maricopa County transit tax nixes light rail, 'road diets'

By Howard Fischer and Bob Christie/Capitol Media Services
Published: Monday, June 12, 2023 - 6:08pm
Updated: Tuesday, June 13, 2023 - 8:18am

Arizona House Republicans trotted out their own version of a new transit tax for Maricopa County on Monday, one that doesn't match what Gov. Katie Hobbs wants.

But it remains unclear whether they can line up the votes for it, as the proposal never made it to the House floor on Monday for a vote.

→ Hobbs and MAG claim to have bipartisan support for Maricopa County transit tax proposal

The House plan, like the one the governor negotiated with the Maricopa Association of Governments, would set the stage for a public vote sometime next year to decide whether the half-cent levy, first approved in 1985, should get another 20-year extension.

But that's where the similarities end. And much of the hang-up is on light rail.

Passengers wait on a platform for a Valley Metro light rail train
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
Passengers wait on a platform for a Valley Metro light rail train in June 2021.

What Hobbs wants is a single vote on the package designed to raise $20 million over the next two decades.

It's not a blank check. Instead, under her plan, 40% of the funds would go to freeway construction, with another 22% for regional and arterial roads, with 38% for transit.

And Hobbs agreed that none of the transit dollars could be used to extend the light rail system beyond what already is built, under construction or planned with existing funds.

What the House wants are two separate ballot questions.

The first would allocate about 86% of the funds raised to fund freeways, main roads and buses, with nearly half of those dollars allocated specifically to building more highways.

And the remaining 14%, to rehabilitate existing light rail lines and build extensions, would be dependent on voter approval of a second, separate question.

The hostility toward light rail among some GOP lawmakers runs deep. In fact, the plan they advanced Monday would block extending the system to the state Capitol — a project that already has funds set aside in the existing levy — regardless of whether either or both ballot measures passed

Avondale Mayor Kenn Weise, who chairs MAG, said he was blindsided by the new proposal.

"You caught me a little bit of a loss because I didn't quite expect that," Weise said when told of the new proposal. "The splitting it, the bifurcation of this bill, has not come up in any discussions that we have with Senate and House leaders."

It's not just funding for light rail that separates what Hobbs and MAG want from the proposal introduced by GOP leaders on Monday.

Lawmakers want to shift about $1 billion now earmarked for bike lanes, pedestrian paths and air quality programs into what they called "actual road projects." And they want an absolute ban on "road diets," shrinking the number of lanes on highways in a way to discourage people from driving.

Cars on Loop 101
Arizona Department of Transportation
Cars on Loop 101 in north Phoenix.

The GOP plan also calls for allowing the Legislature to appoint people from industry to the MAG board which makes decisions on which projects to pursue within the broader guidelines of how the money can be spent. MAG now is composed of mayors and other elected officials,

The Republican legislation also seeks to require Valley Metro, which operates the buses and light rail, to "achieve peer benchmarks" with other cities in how much of the cost is borne by actual riders.

That figure — and which communities would be used for comparison — was not defined in information released on Monday. But Sen. David Farnsworth (R-Mesa) said the current figure for Valley Metro is that fares cover just 7 1/2 cents of actual operating costs.

If the system can't match other similar cities, then Valley Metro would need to outsource operations to the private sector.

For the moment, Hobbs is not budging from her support for what she worked out with MAG.

"We're sticking to our negotiating position," said Hobbs spokesman Christian Slater. But he said the governor is willing to consider changes.

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