Much to the delight of Ahwatukee’s City Council representative, a Superior Court judge has rejected a contractors’ association attempt to derail an August referendum on the only light rail line currently still alive in Phoenix.
Judge Sherry K. Stephens found no merit to an argument by the Arizona Chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America that claimed election petitions provided a misleading explanation of the initiative sought by opponents of the proposed rail line to South Phoenix.
“This could be one of the biggest rulings of the year,” said Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who wants the city’s share of light rail projects diverted into improving city streets and roads.
“The government tried to take away their livelihoods, and these folks fought back,” the Ahwatukee councilman added. “This is a huge win for them, and a huge win for taxpayers across the city. This allows our crumbling, dangerous and embarrassing streets to be repaved today. $1.6 billion is needed today just to bring up the streets to standard.”
DiCiccio noted that the light rail opponents, organized as Build a Better Phoenix, submitted twice the number of required signatures for a referendum on the light rail line project on the ballot,
Yet, he said, “Build a Better Phoenix still found themselves defending the ballot access they earned against a fully-funded and city-supported effort to circumvent the will of the people.”
The contractors group said the petition summary “creates a significant danger of confusion or unfairness” because it did not state that any funds diverted to infrastructure work could not be used on the existing light rail system.
It also said the petition did not advise people that millions in federal funds would be lost, and that it misleadingly suggested that terminating the project would generate revenue.
But the judge noted that a petition summary “is not a complete description of the measure but need only describe the major aspects of the proposition.”
“It is unreasonable to expect a summary that cannot exceed 100 words to fully describe the complex funding process for light rail projects and all variables related to that funding process,” Stephens said.
“As written, the 98-word summary here fairly describes the matters of primary importance in the initiative,” she added.
She also rejected the group’s characterization of the summary, noting the petition “correctly explains that revenues will be redirected to fund infrastructure improvements” and that upkeep of the existing light rail system could be funded by other city money.
“The initiative summary accurately describes that revenues (funds received from taxes) are implicated and does not state “all funds” (to include federal and regional funding sources) as suggested by the contractors,” the judge said.
Light rail funding comes from federal and regional sources as well as a Phoenix sales tax increase established by Proposition 104.
Proposition 104 established a dedicated sales tax of 7/10 of a cent through 2050 to support a comprehensive, multi-modal transportation plan that includes street infrastructure, bike lanes, light rail and buses.
The only funds the city can redirect are from Proposition 104, not the federal grant money.
The judge noted during the hearing that Valley Metro CEO Scott Smith testified. Mr. Smith testified that the initiative summary is misleading because it does not disclose the potential negative impact on air quality, the environment, jobs, transportation planning in the Phoenix regional area as well as utility companies that already have initiated construction activities for light rail expansion.
If voters approve the initiative, it could effectively terminate further light rail expansion since the City Council has already delayed approval of funding for two other projects.
Mayor Kate Gallego has vowed to fight for the system, though it is unclear if she has the votes on Council to make her vow a reality.
It is unclear if the contractors group intends to appeal the ruling.