Light Rail on Shaky Ground

Posted on September 10, 2002 | Type: In the News
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By William Hermann, Billy House and Tom Zoellner

After four years of planning and $37 million spent, Valley cities are planning to build a light rail system that may go nowhere.

Federal support of the project, once seemingly secure, is starting to weaken. And without millions of dollars of support from Washington, light rail could be doomed.

The project, which has a price tag of $1 billion, never has been popular with most members of Arizona's congressional delegation.

Now, even the lone champion, Rep. Ed Pastor, a Democrat, is downplaying expectations.

The $37 million spent has come from federal and local contributions, including transit sales tax revenue. It's been used to pay for engineering studies, identification of utility line locations and what is termed "agency costs," including staff salaries and rent on a downtown Phoenix office building.

Pastor said he has asked the Transportation subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee for $80 million to help fund the early phases of the project but doesn't expect to get "anywhere near" that amount during bill drafting this month.

Asked to release a copy of that request, neither Pastor nor the committee would do so.

The proposed project is a "boondoggle," complained Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. He added that there is not much enthusiasm from other Arizona congressional members.

Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., likens the project to "a field of dreams," and he said that getting that much money at this time in Washington may be a fantasy.

A third House member said he's dutifully forwarded Phoenix's latest funding request to the appropriate House committee. But asked how he feels about the project, Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., snapped: "Since when is my emotional state the issue? The voters of the city of Phoenix adopted this and I feel an obligation."

Arizona's two senators never got around to making a request for the money. The Senate bill that would have included the funding was adopted this summer without the project's inclusion.

Neither Sen. John McCain nor Jon Kyl was available to discuss their inaction.

Despite these discouraging signs, local officials remain outwardly confident.

The project's biggest public booster, Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza, refused even to entertain a conversation about what strategy the Valley will take should the federal commitment fall through.

"It's not going to happen," he said. "I'm not worried about that. We're going to get our fair share of federal funding."

Meanwhile, the project calls for spending big money soon. The planning phase is nearing an end, and if the line is going to meet its completion date of 2006, land acquisition must begin with the new year, just four months away.

About $116 million worth of land must be purchased, mostly in areas around the 28 stations, and planners aim to spend about a third of that next year.

Preliminary indications are that Phoenix and Tempe will begin to spend their local tax money on buying land, with or without federal funding and with no guarantee that the trains will ever run. Mesa, however, plans to wait for a full federal commitment to the project before purchasing any land.

"We know we may not get all the $80 million that we asked for," light rail project spokeswoman Daina Mann said. "But the cities planned for that eventuality and will put up the land acquisition money themselves at first, planning to get it back when the federal money does come."

And even if the project were to get some money this year, it still lacks a key seal of approval from the federal government, a "full funding grant agreement" that guarantees a steady flow of dollars beyond next year's request.

Such agreements typically are made several years into a municipal light rail project, after planning is completed and land acquisition has begun.

"It's probably unrealistic to expect that we'll get all $80 million without a full funding grant agreement, and that's not due to happen until the end of 2003," Mann said.

It could be an uphill battle in the Transportation subcommittee, which has to sort through billion-dollar requests from other metro areas.

"There are so many cities that want to build their own trains, and that are more amenable to this kind of transit. They have denser populations and are less auto-oriented," said Robert Francosi, a transportation researcher for the conservative Goldwater Institute.

In the midst of this uncertainty, the light rail project's form of governance is changing.

The new board of directors is a stripped down, battle-ready group of the primary players in the light rail project: mayors of the cities where the line will run.

Rimsza, Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano and Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker are taking over control as the directors of a newly created non-profit corporation.

Previously, the 13 cities comprising the Regional Public Transportation Authority guided the project.

Glendale also may add a representative soon, pending a City Council decision this month.

"The RPTA met only every other month, and it was felt that a group more accountable to citizens within the cities providing the local funding should be in control," Mann said.

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