An important transit vote could help connect and transform sprawling Phoenix

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Most of the Phoenix residents who vote in local elections tomorrow will drive to the polls. But on the ballot, they’ll find a plan that officials hope will change the way people get around. 


Voters will have a say tomorrow on Proposition 104, a $31.5 billion plan that would triple the city’s light rail system, extend the hours that buses run, and put down more than a thousand miles of bike paths. If approved, the plan may be a big step toward transforming a city known for its suburban sprawl into a more connected and sustainable urban center.

The city’s public transit is already supported by a four tenths of a cent sales tax, which is set to expire in 2020. The new plan would extend the tax for 35 years and raise it to seven tenths of a cent. That means that residents of Phoenix would pay seven cents for every $100 purchase, funding that will be required to go to transit improvements.

The centerpiece of the plan is the expansion of the metro area's light rail system, which would triple in length from its current 20 miles. Since the current light rail line was launched in 2008, connecting downtown to the airport, it's grown in ridership, with more than 14 million trips last year. The train had a moment in the spotlight during this year's Superbowl, when it logged a record-setting 126,000 trips.

If the proposition is approved, buses would also run later at night, with a 15 minute frequency on many routes during rush hours. The plan would also fund 1,080 miles of new bike paths, repave 680 miles of streets, and build shaded shelters at all bus stops—something you'd think would be a no-brainer in a city where summer temperatures can reach 110 degrees.

About one in 11 Phoenix residents don't have access to a car, forcing them to rely on transit. Kate Gallego, a City Council member who is leading the pro-transit campaign, said the funding would especially help poorer families in her South Phoenix district, where 45 percent of locals have no car or only one car for a family. “Parents are staying at work overnight until the bus can pick them up next morning,” Gallego told Fusion. “You hear about families where the whole family gets into a single car and goes to pick up the parents.”

Supporters of the plan like Gallego say it's an investment in the city's future. Phoenix is among the fastest-growing cities in the country, and its population is predicted to nearly double in the next three decades.


The proposition has the support of the mayor Greg Stanton and most of the city’s political establishment. The committee supporting it, MovePHX, has raised more than $1 million and heavily outspent its opponents, which include the Koch Brothers-funded free market group Americans for Prosperity.

While Phoenix had a streetcar system in the beginning of the 20th century, it was ripped up—just like in many other cities—as more and more people bought cars. Phoenix’s sprawling, suburban housing plan was developed in the '60s and '70s, targeted to families of “two parents and some kids” looking for a backyard and a space of their own, said Emily Talen, a professor at Arizona State University.


“That’s not the way the demographic profile is any longer,” Talen told Fusion. “Now, there are more people who want to live a more urban lifestyle, walking and biking… Phoenix is trying to create a different kind of city in that regard.”

The city is already a lot more dense and connected than it used to be, in part because of the light rail. It's especially attractive to students, who make up 40 percent of the ridership. “A lot of young people want to have transportation options, they don’t want to be stuck in a car,” Gallego said. “They know we need more biking, more trains.”


Robert Robb, a columnist in the Arizona Republic, wrote earlier this month that proposition 104 was based on the “Peter Pan theory of millennials,” that young people flocking to urban areas and riding light rail trains “will never grow up, marry, have kids, want those kids to have a lawn to play on.”

But a stronger transit system will serve more people than just millennials. Jennifer Longdon, who uses a wheelchair, says she’s willing to roll several miles to get around, “especially when there’s a cold beer at the end of it.” But she feels limited by the path of the light rail train and its few stops.


“I’d love to roll out my front door and take light rail anywhere,” Longdon told Fusion. “Having a strong transit system around me gives me the confidence that I need to live and work in my city.”

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.