Saturday, December 27, 2008

Growing Faith in a Community's Future

Today, I'm riding the spanking new, Valley Metro, light rail. I'm not going anywhere specific, particularly. (I'll just feel a brief moment of exhilaration about experiencing a travel modality that is quiet and efficient, and a twinge of modest vindication.) But metropolitan Phoenix surely is.

This is a leap forward in mass transit and in urban planning for America's fifth largest city. It's been a long journey getting here. Here's a bit of history. In 1985, Phoenix had an election for a joint regional freeway RPTA entitled Proposition 300; this was to secure tax funding for the development of a regional Maricopa County freeway system over 20 years (tentative completion by 2005). The initiative also created the Regional Public Transit Authority, whose small percentage of the freeway tax was to be used to plan, design and find a funding source for a regional transit system within 5 years.

By Prop 300 requirements, the RPTA was created to design a transit plan. In 1989, the agency proposed an initiative to secure a one-percent sales tax funding source over 30 years for the following components: A regional Maricopa County-wide bus system (7 day-a-week service on every major street in the county), regional-express rapid-bus transit system, multiple commuter trains which would use freight railroad tracks and a 103-mile, elevated, double track, 60 mph rapid-train system. It was totally ambitious, this VALTRANS plan. It made for a very contentious election, in which many voters felt that the plan was too large, too long, too expensive but, somehow, not detailed enough. Even more voters did not like the idea of transit vehicles travelling overhead above neighborhood backyards and streets. Still more were skeptical, concluding that despite the County’s 1985 freeway tax imposed four years earlier, only 10-15 miles of freeway had been built with the taxes collected—so who was to say this wasn’t another boondoggle for a few vested interests?

Having served on the City of Phoenix's Surface Transportation Advisory Board for 3 or 4 years beginning about 1985-86, I was recruited by the RPTA proponents to become a vocal supporter of the initiative. I felt up to the task, since I had spent years in Naples, Italy and metropolitan Washington, D.C. depending on mass transit, and I particularly was a fan of the Paris Metro and bus system that Peggy and I rode for miles daily during the first year of our marriage. No one prepared me for the public hostility awaiting me at Kiwanis breakfasts and Rotary lunches where panels or debates on the proposition usually spoiled the meals. Many agendas emerged in the opposition to the VALTRANS proposition, but it clearly was doomed--very early in the pre-election process--and no one was shocked that the voters savaged it by a 3-1 margin.

It seemed not so much that the valley was populated by backward-thinking people. Much of the resistance was from folks who weren’t ready to abandon driving their cars, and/or didn’t especially care to emulate the transit-heavy eastern cities from which they had migrated westward (New York/NJ, Chicago). Since much of the in-migration of the 1980s was from California, many newer arrivals weren’t frustrated by habits of spending hours in vehicles commuting daily. Some of the local communities’ entrenched leaders were convinced that freeways alone would address the pressures of sustained growth—and they had waited too long already for the funding with which to lay asphalt.

Well, perhaps that hasn’t changed much. Honestly, it doesn’t matter tremendously whether the over-40 crowd doesn’t ride light rail here. There aren’t going to be that many converts among those with a reserved parking stall (except when they realize they are needlessly paying a premium to sit for 30 minutes in a parking garage downtown after a Suns or Diamondbacks game). It’s enough that parents don’t forbid their children to ride. Those who aren’t predisposed to disregard mass transit as a viable mode for travel will in time create the critical mass to reach the “tipping point,” where light rail becomes, beyond vogue, a behavior pattern. I used to think that it would take about 25 years for that to happen, but I’m going to make an optimistic prediction: 15 years, and the Valley Metro ridership will more than cover the expense of its ongoing maintenance. If I’m crazy, then Denver is collective-crazy. Take a look at the acceptance of rail travel in the business and hospitality sector corridors in that city. There’s no Portland-tree-hugging, chip-on-the-shoulder attitude in Denver. It’s Middle America; and the population there understands that transit solves an urbanization problem. And take a look at the impact of Denver transit on its urban form, too. Perhaps that’s the most exciting potential for Valley Metro—a transit-driven urban form, and the eventual electrification of Phoenix’s downtown that some of us have been waiting patiently for—lo, these many decades.


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