FLASHBACK! Railroad Job! Phoenix Light Rail Debate

On November 1, 2013, The Arizona Conservative observes its 10th anniversary. We were the first conservative publication in Arizona history, and we’re featuring some of the most popular news and commentary we’ve featured over our first decade. This article is a report on a debate over the then-proposed light rail system in the Phoenix area, between John Semmens and Becky Fenger (opposed) and Jack Tevlin and Kevin Olson (in favor). So after all these years of light rail, who, among the debaters below, was more accurate?

Ed. Note: At a June 25, 2004 Tempe Town Hall meeting, John Semmens and Becky Fenger debated, in opposition to, Proposition 400, a ballot initiative that calls for the construction of 344 miles of new or improved freeways, 275 miles of new and improved arterial streets, 2,100 new buses and 40 new bus routes, 38 park and ride lots, 27 miles of new light rail track and 1,000 new dial-a-rides, among other promises — all in the Phoenix metro area. For more information on opposition to Prop 400, see votenotax.com.

John Semmens

John Semmens is an economist and transportation expert who opposes light rail.

He uses the three “E’s” of efficiency, effectiveness and equity to examine transportation systems, and says that Prop 400 fails in all three respects.

Efficiency: The transit plan fails big time in delivering on dollar efficiency. To travel a mile, it costs $1.60 for a bus rider, six cents for a car on the freeway and $2.75 by light rail.

According to the Valley Metro planner’s book, every rider on the rail costs $12.49. Why should taxpayers pay for that?

Effectiveness: Light rail takes one car in 25 out of traffic. There used to be 2,500 cars ahead of you on the road. Now there will be 2,499. Aren’t you glad we paid $2 billion for that? Light rail takes two lanes out of the road. Traffic speed slows down to 22.2 miles per hour, and there is a loss of capacity to handle existing traffic. Light rail has a tiny impact, costs a lot of money, there is no benefit in air quality and air quality will be worse.

Equity: Why do transit riders deserve 40 times ($40 to $1 ratio) the equity as non-transit traffic? If they don’t hit their target, the cost will be more. If the system fails, it will be nearly impossible to change it.

The good news is you don’t have to swallow this plan. The current plan expires January 2006. Senator Thayer Verschoor is going to offer a better plan with a bill in the state legislature. You can vote “no” on 400 with confidence.

Virtually everything Jack Tevlin said about the light rail subsidy is false; it is amortized.

Everything you get from this plan is a negative, and you pay so much more for it.

Becky Fenger

A Valley newspaper columnist, Becky Fenger opposes light rail.

Jack Tevlin calls Prop 400 an extension of a tax, but it will be a new tax. Kevin Olson says we need choices. A lady in the audience says we never voted on light rail in Tempe. We voted to study it, and the mayor (Neil Giuliano) did some slick things with that.

As far as the claim that we are playing with numbers, these are Valley Metro’s own numbers, not John Semmens’ numbers. Page B5 says the cost is $100 million more; it has been revised upward. John lowballs everything.

Visit the website “votenotax.com.”

Legislators got a foot shorter this year because the lobbyists came down in such great numbers and sat on them. Jerry Colangelo threatened a legislator.

When talking about light rail corridor numbers, consider that 12-hundredths of one percent — one car out of 700 — will be taken off the corridor. Then why is 15 percent of $2.3 billion going to light rail. Many of the riders will be high-paid attorneys. Should I pay them my shoe money? Where is the fairness? Poor people don’t ride light rail. This is the desert. People won’t walk three blocks to ride it.

Former Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza had 6,000 Skip Rimsza bobblehead dolls made. He wants light rail for his legacy as the “light rail mayor.”

Boys like to play with trains, even if it gives you more traffic, congestion and pollution. That’s the definition of insanity. What an albatross! Senator Thayer Verschoor has promised transportation legislation in January. It will increase freeways and other things.

Why spend more to get more congestion and pollution? Jack and Kevin just don’t make sense. Why weren’t we allowed to vote on this separately? Nowhere in this country has [any city] ever had 1.2 percent of the population ride light rail? It reduces mobility. Sixteen of the 20 cities with the fastest-rising congestion have light rail.

It will take five years to construct. Central Avenue is going to be the street from hell. And it always takes a lot longer than what they say.

Kevin Olson

Kevin Olson is an attorney and a member of Friends of Transit who supports Proposition 400. Among his arguments are the following:

What John Semmens told you is a load of nonsense. Twelve dollars per rider is playing with numbers, which John likes to do. The cost per rider is closer to $2.

We need transportation that adequately serves the population and investment in freeways, buses, streets and some form of transit. Light rail is the current state of the art investment. Several other cities have it and people ride it. It is important for transit to have participation. It will ultimately be built because there aren’t many other choices. It’s where we are headed. We need a plan that makes sense geographically and which moves people.

John Semmens focuses on meaningless statistics. Light rail will take enough cars off the street to make a difference, and it offers an alternative to congestion. It’s another choice for paying $2 a gallon for gas. It is a sensitive, thoughtful plan that makes sense and allows people to move around the Valley.

Jack Tevlin

Jack Tevlin supports Proposition 400. Among his arguments in favor of light rail are the following:

The 1985 half-cent tax measure was approved by the voters over the opposition of the Arizona Republic publisher at the time, a Mrs. Pulliam, who advocated against freeways because she allegedly did not want Phoenix to become another major metro area like Los Angeles.

The freeway in Phoenix was actually planned in 1960 and approved by voters in 1985.

Construction began in 1986.

Prop 400 is not a tax increase, but rather it asks if voters should stop the half-cent tax.

Phoenix is the fifth-largest city in the U.S. By 2045, it will pass Chicago for third-largest city in the nation.

Either we pass 400 or choke in pollution and congestion during the next 20 years. Was the investment of the last 20 years worth it. There were more freeways built here in the last 20 years than any other city in the U.S. We learned that freeways can be compatible with neighborhoods. The purpose of 400 is to continue this progress.

Sixty-six percent of the money from Prop 400 will go to freeways and streets and the other third will go to improving public transit. Of that one-third, 17 percent will go to buses and 15 percent to light rail.

Six-hundred people can ride the train, only 60 maximum in a bus. It is a subsidized service, like a bus.

A new traffic lane will be added on Camelback.

Every great city has freeways, buses and light rail. This is not a great city. It is 34th in transportation. The very people who opposed freeways 20 years ago now oppose light rail.

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