In 1989, public transit advocates argued that Valtrans was the only system that could prevent the Valley of the Sun from turning into a traffic-choked, smog-shrouded "Carmageddon."
Put together after two years, 200 public meetings, and the expenditure of $7 million, Valtrans was an ambitious plan. A 30-year, half-cent increase in the sales tax would raise $8.4 billion to pay for 103 miles of rail transit, 1,500 new buses, a commuter rail line between Chandler and Phoenix, more freeways, and various other projects.
Larry Miller, then director of the Regional Public Transportation Authority, saw no cheaper way to reduce traffic congestion and smog. And the leadership at the state legislature concurred, writing a letter to the Phoenix Gazette urging Maricopa County voters to approve the plan. "Without a transit system," the legislators warned, "we are headed toward the fate of Los Angeles, strangling on traffic congestion and polluted air."
The Gazette folded and so did Valtrans, defeated at the polls with 61 percent voting "no." Since that time, a million people have moved to Maricopa County, and we have continued to expand the freeway system. Public transit has been relatively neglected.
Meanwhile, what has happened to commuting in the Valley? Thanks to the Census, we can compare commuting habits in 2000 to those in 1990, a year after the demise of Valtrans.
Over the past decade the workforce in Maricopa County increased by 40 percent, leading to increased use of all modes of transportation. However, there was no significant change in market share among the different modes. The fraction of people commuting alone to work was 75 percent in 1990 and 74 percent in 2000. The extra percentage point was picked up by car-poolers, who edged up from 14 to 15 percent of market share.
Public transit still plays a very minor role in Valley transportation. The number of public transit riders increased from 21,000 to 34,000, but public transit's share of those traveling to work only nudged up from 2.1 percent to 2.4 percent.
What happened to traffic congestion during this time? Census figures show that average commuting times in the Valley increased slightly over the past 10 years, from 22 to 25 minutes. The good news is confirmed by the Texas Transportation Institute, which finds that between 1992 and 1999 the average Valley commuter saw the number of hours lost in traffic each year increase from 24 to 31-an average of 1.7 minutes per day.
That puts us below the average for large cities, which saw an increase of 11 hours lost per year due to traffic delay. The average driver in Atlanta loses 53 hours per year, 28 hours more than at the beginning of the decade. In Austin drivers lose 45 hours per year, a 23-hour jump. And in Portland drivers lose 34 hours per year, a 12-hour increase.
Despite more cars on the road, air quality in the Valley has generally improved. According the 2001 reports from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, levels for the three major pollutants-carbon monoxide, ozone, and particulate matter-have all held steady or declined.
Carbon monoxide has seen the greatest improvement. Between 1981 and 1986, carbon monoxide levels in Phoenix exceeded the standard an average of 134 times per year. By the end of the 1990s, the average was less than one exceedance per year.
The only adverse air-quality factor that has not improved in Phoenix is visibility. The ADEQ attributes the decline in visibility to increases in car-produced nitrogen oxides and carbonaceous fine particulates.
The data lead to four conclusions. First, rapid growth and sprawl have not adversely affected the quality of life in the Valley in terms of traffic congestion and pollution. Second, we have handled growth much better than other cities often held up as models of good policy. Third, we have successfully managed growth without sinking significant amounts of money into public transit.
The fourth and final conclusion is that voters were right to toss out Valtrans. These conclusions suggest that voters should treat today's grandiose public transit plans-such as the light rail system currently under design-with a heavy dose of skepticism.