Transportation, highway upgrades in limbo as Arizona lawmakers debate Proposition 400

Leer en españolIt all could be in jeopardy, everything from roadway improvements to highway construction and public transit service in Maricopa County, if the Legislature and governor can’t reach a deal in the next few weeks on Proposition 400, the region’s half-cent transportation sales tax.And with it, civic leaders, transportation experts and economists say, the fate of the region’s economic vibrancy could be at stake.The 25-year spending plan that Proposition 400 triggers calls for billions of dollars of investments in key highway and transit projects, which are vital to the region’s mobility, development and to its competitiveness.Not everyone is on board with the plan. Conservative lawmakers who may decide its fate have criticized it, suggesting the blueprint is bloated with expensive public transit projects that don’t serve large parts of the population and it commits to maintaining that service for years.  If the half-cent sales tax is extended, the spending plan would generate nearly $113 billion in economic benefits for Maricopa County, according to an analysis by the regional government agency, Maricopa Association of Governments, and the pro-business Greater Phoenix Economic Council.Voters first approved the tax for 20 years in 1985, and then again in 2004. It funds a significant portion of Maricopa County’s roadways, highways and public transit — if not alone, then by leveraging federal and other matching funds or grants.Proposition 400 has transformed the Valley, building out Loops 101, 202 and 303 that circle metro Phoenix. It helped construct State Route 51 in Phoenix and State Route 24 in the East Valley. It helped build and expand Valley Metro’s light rail system, currently in Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix. It funds critical portions of the region’s public bus system too, such as the buses themselves and Dial-a-Ride service for people with disabilities and seniors. And it helps cities pay for local street projects.It also made metro Phoenix an easier place to get around.In 2004, metro Phoenix ranked the 10th most congested city in America, according to widely respected research by the Texas Transportation Institute. By 2011, it had fallen to 20th, and among similar-sized cities, metro Phoenix fell from 7th to 10th most congested.According to the most recent Federal Highway Administration data from 2019, Phoenix was ranked 24th most congested among the 52 largest cities by one widely used measure. By another measure, hours of congestion, Phoenix ranked 44th.The proposed new regional sales tax, if approved, would represent a nearly $37 billion investment in the state’s economic center over the next 25 years, with the sales tax accounting for $19.5 billion of that revenue. The sales tax revenue would be divided:40.4% for public transit.37.4% for freeways.22.2% for arterials and programs.When state and federal funds are added, freeways account for nearly half of the region’s spending plan enabled by Proposition 400 money.Revenue from the half-cent sales tax also opens Arizona’s door to billions of dollars in federal grant funds that are doled out on a matching basis — money that is provided so long as the region chips in, too.Proposition 400 effect by city: Avondale | Buckeye | Chandler | Gilbert | Glendale | Goodyear | Litchfield Park | Mesa | Peoria | Phoenix | Scottsdale | Surprise | Tempe | TollesonIt was regional Proposition 400 funding that allowed the Arizona Department of Transportation the chance to apply for and receive $90 million in federal grants to expand Interstate 17 between Anthem and Sunset Way, said John Bullen, the Maricopa Association of Governments transportation and finance manager.The association brings mayors together to plan transportation funding and projects.If the next iteration of Proposition 400 passes, federal matching grants could provide about $2 billion to the Valley’s light rail projects and hundreds of millions of dollars for roadway projects, Bullen said.Much of the federal matching funds no longer will be available, however, if the local contribution vanishes, Bullen said.Two new highways — one in Goodyear and Avondale and one in Queen Creek — plus a highway interchange in north Phoenix comprise three other critical pieces of infrastructure Maricopa County mayors and local officials want to see built over the next 25 years.The highways are meant to reduce traffic and accommodate growth, but the transportation tax that laid the foundation for the region’s roadways, highways and public transit is set to expire in 2026 unless voters pass it again. And there’s another caveat — a huge one.Lawmakers must approve transportation tax voteThe Legislature has to allow Maricopa County residents to vote on their own transportation tax, and it’s unclear if or how lawmakers will let them.Last year, former Gov. Doug Ducey vetoed the measure from appearing on Maricopa County residents’ ballots, citing concerns over inflation and transparency in how the measure would be worded. The unexpected move stunned mayors across the Valley, who condemned the veto and have since intensified efforts to get the Legislature and Gov. Katie Hobbs to pass the sales tax extension this session.More:Why the Arizona Legislature will shape the future of transportation in Maricopa CountyAvondale Mayor Kenn Weise said at the time of Ducey’s veto, “I’m a Republican. Small-government type. In Arizona, we rail against federal mandates. … We rail against them, and then when the governor does what he does, we’re supposed to suck it up and take it, and I’m not going to do that. I think that’s unfair.”Discussions this year at the Capitol have been turbulent. Hobbs and the Legislature will reconvene later this month, when they are expected to negotiate transportation and housing issues.Sen. David Farnsworth, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, rejected arguments that a plan that would curtail transit would cut off federal transit dollars.“Our goal is not to push away federal dollars,” Farnsworth, R-Mesa, said at a February hearing. “We want to make sure we’re not throwing away our liberties just to get a nickel from the federal government.”Light rail is the major roadblock in Proposition 400 talks, with Republicans arguing it’s not cost effective and is inappropriate for the Valley’s far-flung communities.Sen Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, is critical of what he calls an “absolutely failed light rail system.” Early this year, he argued it would be more cost-effective to pay ride-share fares out of tax dollars than put that money into transit. There is general agreement that any successful plan will not include the Maricopa Association of Governments’ original proposal to provide funding to expand light rail. However, the plan could include funding for maintaining existing light rail tracks and equipment.Freeway and other road funding have widespread support at the Legislature, but GOP lawmakers will need to land on an agreement that will win the approval of one key Democrat — Gov. Katie Hobbs. Hobbs has said she would veto a plan that reduces transit funding.On June 1, when asked about rail expansion, Hobbs said, “I am not pushing for that, no, and I don’t think any other stakeholders are.”She reiterated her support for the overall MAG plan.”I continue to say this is a really important piece of legislation for the region, for the whole state as well,” Hobbs said at a news conference.  “And we’re going to do what we can to get it across the finish line.”End of Proposition 400 would hurt economy, quality of life, officials sayMaricopa Association of Governments officials say delaying or failing to fund the projects would cost Arizona billions of dollars and worsen residents’ quality of life.An analysis from the association and GPEC says freeways built with 1985 and 2004 transportation taxes have reduced travel times by an average of 25%, saving the typical driver 105 hours a year they otherwise would have spent in traffic.Properties within a quarter-mile of the highways went up in value 212%, while properties within a quarter-mile of the light rail went up 316%, the analysis says.The GPEC study also found that local business sales will grow on average $4.5 billion a year, $40 billion in new, net local income will be generated through 2050 and 12% more amenities will be available within a 30-minute drive, the analysis says.There’s a more personal impact on residents’ daily lives, too, officials say. Proposition 400 funds paratransit service for people with disabilities in Maricopa County.”The sales tax is the only dedicated funding source to provide that. Our most vulnerable users — our seniors, those who are disabled — this is truly a lifeline for them,” said Audra Koester Thomas, Maricopa Association of Governments planning manager.Proposition 400 also provides funding for a significant number of bus routes across the county that could see service cease Jan. 1, 2026, if the sales tax fails or doesn’t make it to the ballot.Two-thirds of public transit users in the Valley have no other option to get around, Koester Thomas said. So, if the Proposition 400 extension fails, they’ll be without service.Local leaders, meanwhile, are waiting anxiously — particularly those in the southwest and far East Valley who’ve long waited their turn for the sales tax to deliver significant projects in their cities.Southwest Valley cities have long waited for State Route 30For more than two decades, Buckeye, Goodyear, Avondale and Tolleson have been promised a new highway, State Route 30, to relieve traffic on Interstate 10.SR 30 would run parallel to I-10 a few miles south and, at full buildout, connect SR 85 in Buckeye in the west to I-17’s Durango Curve in Phoenix. Along the way, SR 30 would cross the perpendicular Loops 303 and 202 near Goodyear and Tolleson, respectively.Since I-10 is the only east-west highway connecting the southwest Valley to downtown Phoenix and the East Valley, State Route 30 is expected to reduce travel times for commuters in the West Valley by adding another path. The added path would help not just city residents but also trucks delivering freight from the Southern California ports.Local leaders in the southwest Valley who wanted SR 30 back when the 2004 transportation tax was negotiated agreed to defer it so long as it was prioritized the next round, this round.The extension of Proposition 400, if passed as the Maricopa Association of Governments planned, would fully fund the buildout of SR 30 between Loop 303 and I-17, starting with the center portion between Loop 303 and Loop 202, then the eastern segment between Loop 202 and I-17.The western segment of SR 30, connecting SR 85 to Loop 303, would come last because traffic patterns show higher demand for the other segments, Koester Thomas said.The center segment was estimated to cost $2 billion in 2020 but has increased by about $700 million since then because of inflation, according to Maricopa Association of Governments. If inflation increases 6% per year, the project will increase $168 million every year it’s delayed, according to the report.I-17/Loop 303 interchange in Phoenix called vital for semiconductor plantAn interchange between I-17 and Loop 303 in north Phoenix is critical to ease traffic expected from the new Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company factory, said Bullen, MAG’s transportation and finance manager.New interchanges on Loop 303 at 43rd and 51st avenues will be enough to abate that traffic until about 2025, Bullen said.”There’s going to be a lot of people going in and out, a lot of suppliers going in and out, a lot of employees,” Bullen said. “It’s going to start to break down.”Local leaders are concerned TSMC could delay hiring and capital investment until the interchange is sorted out. The economic analysis from the Maricopa Association of Governments and GPEC said delays could cost the state $100 million in economic output and $30 million in income loss per year.The new portion of Loop 303 under the Proposition 400 extension plan would extend from I-17 on the east to Lake Pleasant Parkway on the west.Queen Creek could face congestion without completed State Route 24In the southeast Valley, Proposition 400 built the first phase of State Route 24, a six-lane freeway from Loop 202 to Ironwood Drive. Extending the half-cent sales tax will finish it.Bridges over Ellsworth and Mountain roads with two lanes going each direction and stoplights were constructed in Queen Creek as a stopgap measure to “get us a couple of years into the future,” Bullen said, but the new LG facility and population growth will put pressure on those roads.”It will buy us a few years, but just a few years, given the growth out there,” he said.More funding will expand the stopgap roadways into a full-fledged highway.The full State Route 24 was identified in the 2004 half-cent sales tax plan, but the Great Recession drastically reduced sales tax revenue, which resulted in the delay of multiple transportation projects, Bullen said.The extension of Proposition 400, now in limbo at the Legislature, is largely about finishing previously committed-to highway projects that were hampered by the recession, Bullen said.More:Korean battery giant LG announces huge expansion of plans for battery factory in Queen CreekLight rail extensions proposed for west sideMyriad improvements to the Valley light rail system, totaling $2.4 billion, are included in Proposition 400. That figure is about 30% of the total cost of the projects, Bullen said. Cities will pick up roughly another 20%, and federal matching grants are expected to cover the remaining 50%.Maintenance and improvements to the entirety of the rail system are planned and account for $1.4 billion of the Proposition 400 costs, but the most notable light rail projects include two westward extensions.One proposed extension could take the light rail 9.4 miles west along I-10, from the state Capitol on the east to 79th Avenue on the west. It would be constructed in the freeway median before crossing over to the north side of I-10 and stopping at the Desert Sky Transit Center between 75th and 79th avenues north of McDowell Road, according to the Valley Metro website. Proposition 400’s contribution would be about $810 million.Another west Phoenix extension could be constructed between 19th and 43rd avenues and between Bethany Home and Indian School roads. The exact alignment has not been determined. Proposition 400’s contribution would be about $270 million.Plan would improve existing highways and streetsProposition 400 has been foundational to the Valley’s highways. After voters passed it in 2004, it helped build out Loop 202 south of Phoenix, Loop 303 in the West Valley and the start of State Route 24 in Queen Creek. Commuters likely have noticed the massive widening project underway on the I-10 Broadway Curve.If the extension is passed, Loop 101 in the West Valley could see major improvements. The highway would be widened from the 75th Avenue interchange in the northwest Valley to the I-10 interchange in the southwest Valley.Much of I-17 in the Valley would be reconstructed, from Loop 101 in the north to Dunlap Road in the south. Where the highway curves east, south of downtown, a new carpool lane would be added, too. Farther north, the I-17 would get a new carpool lane between State Route 74 and Anthem Way.The I-10 would see myriad interchange improvements between Jackrabbit Trail in Buckeye to stack improvements where it intersects with I-17 near downtown.Loop 202 from Gilbert Road to the U.S. 60 in the East Valley would be widened. Much of the U.S. 60 in the East Valley would be improved, too, including a new HOV lane from Ellsworth to Meridian roads.The Grand Avenue corridor of U.S. 60 would be upgraded from Sun City West at the northwest end to downtown Phoenix.Major streets, safety programs, bus transitThe spending plan made possible by Proposition 400 would pay for major street improvements in each city. Upgrades to arterial streets that connect cities, such as Bell, Camelback and Scottsdale roads, would be paid 70% by Proposition 400 and 30% by the corresponding cities.Proposition 400 also would set aside $200 million for air quality programs and $250 million for safety programs.It would provide significant support for the Valley’s bus transit program, chipping in to assist with operational costs, bus purchases, funding park-and-ride facilities and ADA services.Reporter Taylor Seely covers Phoenix for The Arizona Republic. Reach her at, by phone at 480-476-6116, or on Twitter @taylorseely95.

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