Phoenix Lightrail

Valley Metro opened its eastern-most light rail station on Gilbert Road in Mesa in May. 

With ballots slated to go out next Wednesday on a Phoenix proposition that could kill light rail’s western expansion, the Arizona Free Enterprise Club has released a study disputing the $11 billion in economic development that supporters attribute to the line.

The report, compiled by the club transportation policy expert Randal O’Toole, seeks to debunk what club Vice President and Gilbert Councilwoman Aimee Yentes calls “the speculative claims made by Valley Metro.”

O’Toole examined 344 projects that Valley Metro attributes to the 11-year-old Light Rail system.

“The report shows that the vast majority of these projects would have happened anyway, happened only because they were subsidized or were government buildings and that the cost of rail construction exceeded any actual economic development created by light rail,” Yentes said.

The blistering report comes as Phoenix voters prepare to cast their ballots on Proposition 105, which would kill the South Phoenix spur and repurpose city funds for street repairs and other infrastructure work.

Ahwatukee voters can mail in their ballots, drop them off during normal business hours at Phoenix City Hall, 200 W. Washington St., 15th Floor from July 31 through Aug. 23 or wait till the Pecos Community Center’s election center is open on the Saturday and Monday before the Aug. 27 election.

People can request a ballot until Aug. 16 at phoenix.gov/elections, pick up a form at Ironwood Library, or call 602-261-8683.

Phoenix and Valley Metro officials say killing the South Phoenix line would prompt the federal government to pull tens of millions of dollars it has committed to the project.

But Enterprise Club President Scot Mussi two weeks ago charged that “rampant cost overruns” already have nearly doubled the total cost for the South Phoenix light rail spur to $1.35 billion – which he calculated at $245 million a mile.

“The scariest part for taxpayers is that they haven’t even broke ground on the project, so the price tag will likely go even higher before they are finished,” said Mussi, noting the original cost estimate for the spur in 2015 was $520 million.

Phoenix City Council has all but killed the remaining light rail project – although Mayor Kate Gallego has vowed to bring that measure up for another vote at some undetermined time.

Gallego also told area blog author David Gordon, that “Prop 105 is an initiative being pushed by a small group of people.”

“We expect it to be funded by out-of-state dark money groups with a vested interest in seeing public transportation infrastructure fail,” she added.

“Voters have voted not once, not twice, but three times in favor of light rail and I am confident they will do so again in August,” the mayor added, stating:

 “Investing in Phoenix’s light rail system means that the thousands of workers, students, and families who ride light rail every day will have expanded transit access, creating new opportunities for our residents. As a world-class city, and the fastest growing city in the nation, Phoenix light rail’s continued growth is crucial to our city’s success.”

But in the release last week by the Free Enterprise Club, Yentes said, “Valley Metro included billions worth of projects that were heavily subsidized, were government funded, or were more than ½ mile from a light rail stop.”

The study said 85 projects attributed to light rail and valued at $3.8 billion received some kind of favorable subsidy or tax break.

Another 46 projects worth $2.1 billion were government buildings; 46 worth $2.7 billion were Arizona State University buildings; and 17 projects worth $317 million were located more than a half mile from the light rail station while two were built before light rail was.

“After removing these unrelated and subsidized projects, what you are left with is less than $2 billion of development that likely would have been built anyways,” said Yentes, adding:

 “Furthermore, light rail has cost taxpayers over $2 billion to build and nowhere in Valley Metro’s analysis do they include the detrimental effects light rail construction has had in displacing or shuttering small businesses along the construction of the line.  The juice just hasn’t been worth the squeeze.”

Added O’Toole: “Considering light rail fares only cover 28 percent of the costs of operations and maintenance, it is hard to classify light rail as a ‘productive investment.’”  

One of the most outspoken proponents of the “Building a Better Phoenix” prop is Phoenix Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who gave wide circulation to Mussi’s disclosure of the South Phoenix spur’s higher cost.

“$245 million per mile for light rail. Seriously, how can anyone support this waste?” DiCiccio said.

“They did not disclose to taxpayers that the projected cost to build the line has nearly doubled,” he added, calling the South Phoenix spur “one of the most expensive light rail extensions in the country.”

Mussi said, “Neither Phoenix or Valley Metro have explained how they are going to pay for this, or what happens when the cost goes even higher. Taxpayers have a right to know what roadway projects will be cancelled to fund this boondoggle.”

The proposition has its opponents, including the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce and the Arizona Citizens for the Arts.

The arts group said. “Light rail will play an increasingly important role in the quality of life in our community by providing reliable, efficient and cost-effective transportation to diverse opportunities across the Valley including many of our vibrant arts and cultural offerings.”

Seconding that opinion is Bob Altizer, president/CEO of MusicaNova Orchestra in Ahwatukee who said the prop “would do severe — if not irreparable — harm to arts organizations in Phoenix, with shockwaves felt in adjoining cities.”

Calling the light rail and another proposition curbing city spending “unwise and shortsighted,” Altzier said:

“Phoenix is the fifth-largest city in the nation but didn’t even make the Top 20 in a recently published list of arts-vibrant large communities in the US.”

He was particularly concerned about Prop 106, saying it “will ensure we stay off that list”

  “A 2017 study by Americans for the Arts reported, ‘Not-for-profit arts and culture organizations and their audiences in Phoenix contribute nearly $402 million in direct economic activity to the city.’”

“The Phoenix arts community would suffer,” he said, adding

“Light rail stops near Phoenix Symphony Hall and the Orpheum Theatre, at Roosevelt Row, and in the Central Arts District (near the Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix Theatre, Arizona Opera, the Heard Museum, and more), serve venues responsible for much of the nearly half-billion dollars in economic impact.  Do we really want to limit growth of these organizations and the economic benefit that goes with it?”

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