“Dark money special interests”: Phoenix fights plan to ban all future rail

A battle is raging in Phoenix, Arizona over plans to extend a light rail system south into lower-income neighbourhoods, with opponents determined to halt it and ban any further railway investments in America’s fifth largest city.

Citizens will vote on 27 August to accept or reject "Proposition 105", tabled by anti-rail campaigners supported by a group funded by anti-rail petroleum and industrial magnates Charles and David Koch.

The proposition would amend the city’s charter in order to cancel the $1.35bn South Central Extension of the rail transit line 5.5 miles down Central Avenue.

Preferring investment in roads, the proposition would also prohibit any future investment in fixed-rail systems in Phoenix, which is currently America’s fastest growing city by population. Excluded from this ban on future rail investment would be the city’s Sky Train, which serves the airport.

Business and community groups and the city government strongly oppose the proposition. A campaign organisation set up to fight against it warns of "out-of-state dark money special interests" determined to thwart sustainable multi-modal transport.

If a majority of voters say yes to Proposition 105, it would reverse Proposition 104, which got 55% of the vote in 2015, and raised sales tax to 0.7% to pay for new light rail lines, bus-service expansions and street improvements. 

The city expects to raise $16.7bn for transport from the extra tax, 35% of which – just under $6bn – it plans to spend on light rail transit by 2050. Those funds would be part-matched by federal grants and other sources, the city said.

Valley Metro, Phoenix’s rail transit operator, currently has 26 miles of light rail, with 67 million passengers using the lines in 2018. In all, six further extensions are planned.

Proposition 105 got on the ballot after a group calling itself "Building a Better Phoenix" gathered 40,000 signatures for a petition in November last year . 

The group paid a firm, National Ballot Access, $187,440 to collect the signatures, reports local news outlet, Phoenix New Times. 

The group argues that Phoenix taxpayers are "wasting billions" on the "disastrous expansion" of light rail, and that the money could be better used on improving roads, bus and dial-a-ride services. 

Because putting a railway down Central Avenue would take up two of the four existing traffic lanes, some local businesses oppose the extension, fearing loss of custom, as AZMirror reports. 

Anti-rail groups got a boost in July when it emerged that the cost of the South Central Extension had nearly doubled to $1.35bn from an earlier estimate of $704m. 

Valley Metro said the cost hike was due to three factors: the addition of a "Downtown Hub" to integrate other lines with three new stations; a higher contingency budget required by the Federal Transit Administration; and material and labour cost inflation. 

Fighting against Proposition 105 are a wide range of community and business groups, including the Phoenix chamber of commerce, labour unions, neighbourhood associations, and state and city legislators from Democratic and Republican parties.

Their campaign group, "Invest in PHX", calls the proposition a "coordinated attack on Phoenix’s future" that is "backed by out-of-state dark money special interests". 

Earlier this month an investigation by Phoenix New Times found evidence that political lobby group, the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, a vocal opponent of light rail in Phoenix, helped draft the language for Proposition 105 and assisted in organising the petition’s signature-gathering process.

Scouring tax documents, the New Times found that since 2016 the Arizona Free Enterprise Club has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from "Americans for Prosperity", the national lobby organisation founded by the Koch brothers, which has waged anti-transit campaigns in Michigan, Arkansas, Indiana and Tennessee.

Image: Phoenix’s metro system currently has 26 miles of light rail in operation (Valley Metro)

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