No time to lose March 29th, 1998
Arizona must act now-collectively-to ward off gridlockBy Eddie Basha. Reprinted with permission from the Mesa Tribune, March 29, 1998.
Education and transportation are two of the biggest problems facing this state. The Legislature appears ready, at long last, to find an equitable method of school finance (albeit kicking and screaming under pressure from the State Supreme Court). As for transportation, there just hasn’t been a big enough kick in the pants – YET – to get state, county and city officials to work together the way they must do if they ever hope to get people and products from here to there in a reasonable time and at an affordable cost.
But that kick in the pants is coming, and sooner than you might think.
Picture this: There’s a Diamondbacks ball game downtown. At the same time the Suns are playing the Lakers. There’s a boat show at the Civic Center, a new play at the Herberger, a rodeo at the Coliseum, the Boston Pops are at the Symphony Hall, and Steven Seagal is back in town for another guest shot at the Arizona Center. All at the same time.
But the real show isn’t in downtown Phoenix-it’s on the Valley’s freeways. They’re crammed shoulder to shoulder. You can’t get on, and you can’t get off. It’s the mother of all traffic jams and the cacophony of blaring horns from angry drivers is sending the loudest wake-up call ever about the Valley’s transportation system – or lack thereof.
A fantasy? Hyperbole? No way. It could happen-and soon.
Maybe that’s the kind of kick in the pants it would take to convince our government officials that the Valley’s transportation arteries are just too clogged. If cars were cholesterol, our freeways would need a multiple bypass.
We all know that transportation is the engine that drives economic activity. If it stops chugging, so does all that goes with,it. The bad news is our transportation system is inadequate, outmoded and getting worse by the day. The good news? We can fix it, if we have the vision and political will.
The problem is that when looking at transportation in Arizona, one would have to conclude not only that Murphy’s Law is in effect, but that Mr. Murphy was an optimist.
In my opinion, if our state, county and city transportation gurus don’t get their collective act together – and do it fast – our economy (now in its eighth year of expansion) and concomitant quality of life most surely will falter.
What’s the answer? I believe the answer is statewide coordination of an integrated, regionalized approach to transportation that brings together all of its elements and interests like so many fingers rolled into one fist. That way, we’ll get the biggest transportation bang for the buck, and get the job done better, faster and more comprehensively than the piecemeal approach that’s brought us nowhere of any consequence.
Why is if so important to see the big picture? Because the needs of specific communities will never be fully addressed until our collective needs are met. The reality is that most of us live in one community, work in another and must pass through perhaps several others while going back and forth: in other words, a new stretch of highway, a bus route, a carpool lane or a light rail system that dead-ends when you cross from one community to the next does no one any good. But an integrated, regionalized approach to transportation – under state leadership – takes political courage and a willingness to put aside parochial interests in favor of doing the right thing for the general good. A tall order, but that’s the first step.
Having said that, let me suggest some very specific things that need to be considered as part of an integrated plan for air, rail and ground transportation.
Sky Harbor is the primary airport in Arizona. It is the main entry point for passengers and air cargo, both of which are growing at an alarming rate that soon will outstrip the airport’s capacity.
It’s no secret that Sky Harbor is land-locked. With two short runways and acreage that is one tenth the size of most modern airports, Sky Harbor nevertheless is one of the fastest growing airports in America and the busiest airport of its size in the world.
Owned by the city of Phoenix as it is, the state of Arizona has no say-so over Sky Harbor. While the city of Phoenix may optimistically believe it can keep finding ways to expand its airport, you can’t cram six pounds of sugar into a five-pound sack. It’s time to consider a new facility that could, for example, handle air cargo and international flights while leaving domestic flights at Sky Harbor. This way, a single overburdened airport no longer would be the bottleneck through which virtually all air traffic in and out of Phoenix must pass.
Politically, rail service also gets hands-off treatment. It’s a “third-rail issue” – touch it and you die.
The biggest non-argument against rail transportation is that it has to be subsidized. Of course, it has to be subsidized – just as buses and highways are subsidized (In fact, nothing is more subsidized than the act of driving a car on a freeway or an interstate highway.)
So let’s put that bogeyman to bed. We have to get cars off the road, so we trade off subsidized freeways for subsidized railways. Big deal!
The beauty about going to light rail is that metro Phoenix possesses lots of right of way opportunities that other cities would die for. The Salt River bed running east to west provides an unobstructed right-of way through the Valley that is ideal for light rail. We also have a heavy rail line running through the metro area that touches most of the key centers in the Valley. And if that’s not enough, we also have the possibility of building a light rail system above the canals that crisscross the Valley.
So, let’s at least get a demonstration project going from the vicinity of ASU in Tempe through the airport at Sky Harbor to downtown Phoenix. If light rail does nothing else, it certainly will alleviate the inevitable freeway traffic jams and downtown parking nightmare we have coming our way.
Now, let me quickly comment on our freeways. In so doing,1et me take you back to 1983, when a group of East Valley Partnership members got together and formulated the idea of a half-cent sales tax to construct freeways. Eventually, it was called Proposition 300.
The Phoenix 40 backed the idea, and Burton Barr came forward to head up a campaign to get the voters behind it. We got the tax all right – the problem is that the additional roads we got for our money failed to adequately anticipate the explosive growth of the East Valley, instead concentrating on the West Valley.
It is this haphazard approach to solving our transportation problems that must change, and change soon. Not only do we have to build freeways in the right places, augmented by light rail, we must limit the number of cars that travel on them. And that means doing more than simply encouraging van pooling. We need other ground transportation alternatives, too. Here are some ideas:
What about a viable system of park-and-ride sites, with user friendly bus service to and from strategic points throughout the Valley – not just downtown? Municipalities could offer lottery- type contests for park-and-ride commuters, awarding prizes (volunteered by area businesses) to those parked on “lucky” parking spaces drawn at random on a daily or weekly basis.
What about integrating land use into the picture? Looking out from my high-rise in downtown Phoenix, it’s amazing to see the amount of unoccupied land that’s very close by. We need to promote infill on these existing parcels, which might go a long way toward curbing the sprawl that plays such a major role in our transportation problems. If we keep building farther and farther out, people have to travel longer and longer distances to get to work, or to get to their homes. It doesn’t have to be that way.
What about business-sponsored busing? This kind of public-private partnership could go a long way toward putting additional buses on the road (while taking cars off it).
What about free license plates for commuters who drive three or more co-workers to the job site? The employer could verify that the individual is part of a car or van pool, and further sweeten the pot by kicking in any additional incentives of its own that it may offer.
What about using school buses during down time for optimum utilization of our resources? Thousands of buses are left idle for many hours each day. Why not use them in some private or public-private endeavor?
Our Valley is glutted with cars. Moreover, hundreds of millions of dollars are wasted annually by motorists stuck in freeway traffic, and their jammed-up, hot, idling cars do irreparable damage not only to our environment, but to our own health and well-being.
The ideas I’ve shared are just an inkling of what we could do to contend with this problem. How urgent is our need? Consider this: For a number of years, Maricopa County has been growing by about 90,000 residents per year. That translates to roughly 73,000 additional cars a year that must be absorbed by our already overburdened highways.
Stretched bumper to bumper, the annual influx of additional cars (not counting winter visitors) would take up about 60 miles of a six-lane highway. Since the county adds only about 10 miles of six-lane freeway every year, the prospect of serious gridlock appears inevitable – unless we see a change in political thinking about transportation.
As an observer of the political scene in Arizona for some years, it seems to me that the greatest obstacle to success in public policy has not been ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge. And when it comes to such “knowledge,” every municipality, every governmental entity, seems to believe it knows what is best for itself, without considering what is best for us all. This is living an illusion. The time has come to overcome those illusions and address reality.
Eddie Basha is a Valley businessman and former Democratic candidate for governor.
Why Not Use Tried Methods to Relieve our Flood of Traffic? March 24th, 1998
Lloyd Clark, column: “As time goes by,” reprinted with permission from Daily News-Sun, March 24, 1998.
With all of the “world class state of the art big time” additives to downtown Phoenix, it remains a second-class city when it comes to mass transit. Among others, the plethora of automobile and truck dealers in the Valley are agents of the deficiency. When the president of the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce suggested light rail as a likely solution to rubber-tired vehicle congestion, the Arizona Automobile Dealers Association withdrew its chamber membership.Now, with the impending concurrent congregation of patrons at the Bank One Ballpark, America West Arena, the Civic Center, Herberger Theater Center and AMC Theaters, panic has produced a questionable solution — shuttle buses to move customers from and to lots at the Capitol and Park
Completely ignored are the rail lines that traverse the Valley and pass within two to four blocks of the downtown gathering places. A six-car commuter train can move 10 times the number of riders as a 48-passenger bus.
Why is it that the metropolitan movers and shakers ignore this rail transit corridor? Its use would ease the parking problem downtown to say nothing of alleviating the pollution generated by too many autos and buses in a small area all at one time.
Areas adjacent to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and the Union Pacific tracks could provide parking for hundreds of cars and commuters from Surprise, the Sun Cities, El Mirage, Youngtown, Peoria, Glendale, Buckeye, Goodyear, Litchfield Park, Avondale, Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert.
Eighteen years ago this month, the Flood Emergency Train concluded a two-week service, having transported thousands of commuters back and forth across the swollen Salt River. Dubbied the “Hattie B.” it was activated by the cooperation of Amtrak, the Arizona Department of Transportation, and the Southern Pacific Railway in February 1980 when the raging waterway closed all of the crossings except the Mill Avenue auto bridge and the adjacent railroad bridge.
The impending Abominable Traffic Jam/Parking Dilemma has presented what the Phoenix Mayor and City Council describe as an emergency. But apparently the inundation of autos is not considered equal to that caused by the flloding of the river. Of all the requests made to corporations for relief, none, I’d wager, went to the railroad enterprises.
High-Speed Study Completed March 16th, 1998
The Governor’s High Speed Rail Feasibility Study Task Force on March 16 recommended an incremental approach to building a Tucson-Phoenix rail link. An initial system, according to the task force, could be built using the existing railroad alignment with speeds to 79 mph. This could then be improved using diesel locomotives to 100mph, and eventually using electric locomotives up to 125mph.
The Arizona Republic quoted chair Mary Peters as saying state officials will wait for the results of a highway improvement study before proceeding. The Republic spoke to ARPA representative Earl Eisenhower, who said, “I don’t want to see this study put on a shelf and gather dust.”
With the Baseball train demonstrating the use of commuter rail in Arizona, with the Valley Connections light-rail study in Phoenix and Tempe, and with our 1992 Regional Rail White Paper in preparation to be updated, there is much to be done. Please do not hesitate to call 480/947-5710 and help make Regional Rail and Light Rail a reality in Arizona.