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By Anonymous Mike, pseudonymously.

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Friday, July 11, 2008
Don't Let Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story

Originally I was going to write a story about lawn mowing and the look of horror my 12-year old conveyed when he realized last night's rain would make the grass grow faster. You see, I have delegated the task of mowing the lawn to him and well he wasn't taking to it like I expected.

I was going to write about a heartwarming father/son moment about the necessity of doing mind-numbing chores but instead I decided to flog a dead horse and write about light rail. In this case how the Valley light rail project is presented to those outside the state.

Governing magazine did a piece on Sun Belt light rail projects with a special look at Phoenix. As you expect, it's all peaches and puppy dogs. Alot of pictures of well-shaded light rail stations, descriptions of how cold the water fountains will be, and how Phoenix is helping local businesses survive the construction. What interested me was the blurb at the beginning of the piece:

Like many Sun Belt cities, Phoenix is hoping that it's major investment in a new light-rail system will do a lot more than just reduce traffic congestion. The city is counting on its light-rail line — which opens in December -- to help drive denser development along certain corridors. The idea is to create more of a sense of place — a departure from Phoenix's sprawl-addicted past.

In fact the larger article about Sun Belt light rail is about just that, focusing systems on driving greater downtown development with moving large quantities of people as a secondary concern. I don't seem to remember that as the selling point when we in Maricopa County were asked to extend a transportation sales tax so the system mileage could be doubled.

I guessed I shouldn't be surpised. If you wanted to move people the most efficient means possible using mass transit, you would uses buses which could operate on existing city streets.

Here's the second deception, that light rail largely of its own merits drives development.

Phoenix's light-rail line doesn't open until December, but it's already driving development — including a large new downtown campus for Arizona State Univeristy. The school expects 8,000 students at its downtown location this fall — and an eventual enrollment of 15,000. University officials say the upcoming light-rail line, which easily connects with ASU's main campus in Tempe, was a huge factor in their decision to open downtown.


The school is building classroom facilities, dorms and a library, and the hope is that students and faculty will use the train to shuttle between the downtown campus and the main campus, which has a stop on the line in Tempe. "ASU is the first success story of our light rail," says Phoenix deputy city manager Tom Callow, "and the system hasn't even opened yet."

I guess we're now getting into parsing language and what constitutes "huge" but the reason ASU is expanding into the downtown area is that Phoenix is building the university a brand new campus at city taxpayer expense. In fact nearly 1/3 of the proceeds from the 2006 Phoenix bond election with total costs including interest of upwards of half-billion dollars will go to ASU Downtown. So ASU Downtown only counts as a success for light rail if you mean to state that the taxpayers have to pay for both the light rail and the construction of the campus. The ASU administration would be criminally negilgent if it refused that hand-out.

I'm willing to bet that if you were going to ask Valley residents whether they would be willing to pay billions of dollars to construct light rail systems that would drive the development of a few municpal downtowns that they would say no. Downtown development is not how the project was sold to Phoenix taxpayers in 2000 or county taxpayers in 2004, but rather as part of larger packages that dealt with mass transit and/or roads.

However there is hope. Remember the starter line was seeded for hundreds of millions in federal dollars:

The biggest reason why this transit chapter may be coming to a close, however, is because the federal government isn't as keen on light rail as cities are. All federal money for light rail is approved through the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts program. Unlike road projects, light-rail systems seeking federal funds must compete against one another — and against other forms of transit that federal criteria have tended to favor, such as bus rapid transit. New Starts doesn't take into account development potential, creating a sense of place, or reducing harm to the environment. Rather, funding is based on the ability of a system to replace car trips with transit trips for the least amount of money....

.... For now, though, cities must rely very heavily on their own funds, and on asking voters for more money. It's a situation that Phoenix's Tom Callow says may threaten light rail's potential. "I do think there's a national moment, but I'm not sure the nation's ready to seize it. I think we should, but it's going to be hard."

I guess I would call it a feature though Mr. Callow no doubt calls it a bug. If the idea of residents of Laveen and Desert Ridge paying for a system which has the primary purpose of driving the development of downtown Phoenix is repulsive, then what about people in Iowa or Texas having their federal tax dollars going to to spur downtown development or create a "sense of place"?