Connecting with Tempe...with Pam Goronkin
Signs bring life to already hot issues

By Pam Goronkin

Don’t you just love election season? All those roadside posters really bring some life to intersections we’d hardly noticed before. Unfortunately, the signs don’t take the guesswork out of casting an intelligent, thoughtful vote on the issues that will have an impact on our community—and our lives—for many years to come.

Take Prop. 400, for example. Roadway signage makes it pretty clear: “Vote NO on Prop. 400: Stop Light Rail in its Tracks.” Sounds simple enough, especially if you’re lukewarm to light rail.

The reality is that only 15 percent of the potential taxes used by Prop. 400 would be invested in light rail in the future, and then only if the first light rail segments satisfy a threshold of acceptable performance.

Light rail will be up and running here in 2008. What, you say—you mean the first segments of light rail will be built anyway? I thought a “no” vote on Prop. 400 would prevent that.

Before this gets too confusing, allow me to back up a minute, let off some steam and check the schedule on Prop. 400.

In 1985, voters approved a transportation tax designed to relieve traffic congestion in the region by dramatically increasing freeway construction. The approved tax was designed to sunset after 20 years, on Dec. 31, 2005.

Now we’re being asked to consider an extension of that half-cent sales tax for an additional 20 years in order to keep pace with our exploding rate of development and population. Hence Prop. 400.

Some may feel that this is not really a Tempe City Council issue, since it will be decided by the voters. 

But Tempe has played a key role in the areas of transit and transportation over the years. Tempe passed the first local transit tax in 1996, with Phoenix following a few years later. Former Mayor Giuliano led the Maricopa Association of Governments Transportation Policy Committee effort to develop an historic Regional Transportation Plan that would invest $15.8 billion in new freeways, arterials, expanded bus service and bus pullouts, and extensions to the (already funded) first segments of light rail in the metropolitan area.

A few of you may have been confused a few of weeks ago when Tempe’s current mayor, Hugh Hallman, declined to take a position for or against Prop. 400.

One resident wrote an open letter to the mayor, received at City Hall via email on Sept. 16. Bill Wagner wrote:
“The Tempe Chamber of Commerce supported you, and…we support Prop. 400…Tempe is in the heart of benefiting from Prop. 400. Mr. Mayor, why won’t you take a stand and lead us?”

The previous council (under Mayor Giuliano) did indeed support the Regional Transportation Plan on which Prop. 400 is based. The City Council agenda for Thursday, Oct. 7, included a resolution to reiterate council support for the Regional Transportation Plan. 

I hope that Mayor Hallman voted to support it. By law, the council cannot utilize any city funds or resources to influence the outcome of an election.
This was, in part, the mayor’s reasoning for his own neutral stance on Prop. 400, even though the mayors of most other jurisdictions in the region have been quite vocal in their advocacy.

Mayor Hallman has stated that he will not use his office to advocate on behalf of any initiative, proposition or individual candidate. But I certainly understand why other mayors have been so vocal in their support of Prop. 400: They were the members of the MAG Transportation Policy Committee who toiled to craft the most comprehensive regional transportation planning effort in the past 40 years, and then battled the state legislature for the right to place this plan before the voters.

The Regional Transportation Plan had enemies in the state legislature, and it appears Prop. 400 has enemies too. 

In our form of governance—in any form of governance—you will generally have various opinions and points of view. That’s why it’s nice that we are getting a chance to vote on this matter. 

Tempe’s local elected body had a role in creating the regional plan. Tempe has a long history of taking the lead when it comes to progressive issues in the region. Tempe voters are the reason for that reputation and the raison d’etre of the local elected body.

As for light rail, it’s coming regardless of the outcome of Prop. 400. Taxes in Tempe and Phoenix, along with projected matching grants from the federal government, will pay for the first 20-plus-mile light rail segment. 

For Tempe and Arizona State University, the light rail is a crucial connection to everything in downtown Phoenix, from TGen to ASU’s future Central City Campus, from Diamondbacks baseball to the Convention Center. 

Combine that with Tempe’s proximity to Sky Harbor, ASU’s main campus here and the wealth of amenities offered in and near our own downtown, and light rail makes Tempe the virtual heart of the entire region. 

This is great for future economic development. Passage of Prop. 400 might also enable Tempe to benefit from extensions of the initial light rail north and south on Rural Road, extending into Scottsdale and potentially into Chandler.

I’ve made no attempt to sort out the statistics offered on either side of the Prop. 400 argument. 

Because clever statisticians can work whatever magic they like with the numbers, I’ll stick to simple advice: You must decide for yourself if you believe the transportation tax you’ve paid since 1986 has been worth it and whether you feel extending such a tax for another 20 years makes sense to Tempe and the greater Phoenix area.

Consider your decision in the context of the realization that our population is projected to grow from the current 3.5 million residents to in excess of 5.5 million over the next 20 years. 

A ‘no’ on Prop. 400 won’t stop light rail in its tracks. But it might give you a lot more time to sit in traffic jams and read campaign posters along the roadside. 

(Note: Pam Goronkin has utilized no city of Tempe funds or resources to write, edit or print this column. She receives no compensation from Wrangler News to write this column. She has received no compensation from the “Yes on Prop. 400 Campaign.”)