Last legislative session our organization led the opposition to the Maricopa Association of Governments’ (MAG) Prop 400 sales tax extension, SB1356, criticizing the plan for its massive expansion of transit spending, lack of oversight, and vague allocations of spending that amounted to a slush fund for government bureaucrats. It was astonishing the lack of answers we received to simple questions about the plan and how funds would be spent.
We suspected at the time that we weren’t being told the whole story and that ulterior motives were at play. Only now do we know how right we were.
Governor Ducey’s veto of MAG’s defective Prop 400 plan provided a reset of the Prop 400 debate. Coupled with new legislative leadership not beholden to MAG and the transit lobby, they could no longer avoid a debate of their unvetted proposal. So, after several months of legislative hearings and substantive meetings at the Capitol, what critical information has MAG been hiding from lawmakers and the public?
MAG’s Plan is a Bailout for a Bankrupt Transit System
The debate around the last extension of the Maricopa County transportation tax in 2003 hinged on the idea of shifting billions of dollars away from freeway construction and into public transit. This was a major deviation from the intent of the original tax adopted in 1985 which funded 100 percent freeways. Appeals from the transit-lobby were ultimately successful and resulted in 33.3 percent of the tax being diverted to fund expanded bus operations and a new light rail system in Phoenix, Mesa, and Tempe.
Now under their new “Momentum Plan”, MAG wants over 40 percent of the tax to go toward transit, siphoning off billions from much needed freeway and roadway projects throughout the valley. MAG and Valley Metro claimed that demand for expanded bus service was the rationale for taking a larger share of the Prop 400 pie, but that wasn’t it. Through record requests and inquiries by State lawmakers, it was discovered that (unsurprisingly) the Valley Metro bus system is bankrupt, and that billions are needed to make up the shortfall. So why is the existing system bankrupt? Two reasons: a massive decline of ridership and plummeting fare recuperation.
For a variety of demographic and socioeconomic reasons, bus ridership in Maricopa County has been in decline for over a decade. And after the Covid-19 pandemic, transit ridership fell off a cliff, dropping by over 50 percent and has yet to recover. As of today, transit ridership as a share of urban travel is lower than it was twenty years ago, despite massive population growth and record amounts of money spent on bus and light rail. And if almost empty buses and light rail weren’t bad enough, the revenue being generated by fares from the remaining customers is almost non-existent. When the current Prop 400 tax plan was being sold to voters twenty years ago, Maricopa Association of Governments included benchmarks for “farebox” recovery for the region’s transit provider, Valley Metro. They promised that fares would cover 30 percent of operational costs for local buses, 25 percent for express/Bus Rapid Transit, and 45 percent for light rail. What was fare recuperation for Maintenance and Operation in 2022? A paltry 7 percent.
This is why MAG’s 400 plan is demanding a higher share for transit. They want a taxpayer bailout.
MAG’s Plan Hid Massive Spending for Green New Deal Programs
One of the larger mysteries rolled into the MAG plan was the creation of a new “regional programs” bucket to fund an undefined list of “transportation projects that are selected through a performance-based process for arterial improvements, active transportation, air quality, emerging technologies, intelligent transportation systems, safety and transportation demand management.”
This hodgepodge list was basically carte blanche authority to spend taxpayer money on – whatever. More involved conversations with MAG have not assuaged lawmakers but instead incited more unease. With the current agenda being broadcast in plain sight to move people out of their cars, forcing them to walk, bike, and take transit instead, the inclusion of this “slush fund” and the over $2B allocated to it, has understandably raised many questions. One of those questions being what specific projects does MAG intend to finance? They have refused to provide such a list aside from paving dirt roads and buying street sweepers, neither of which require billions.
This fall it was revealed that MAG intended to use the Regional Program slush fund to pay for the region’s air quality program. This was a concerning revelation, especially after MAG rolled out their proposed recommendations in early March as remedies to contend with unrealistic EPA air quality standards. Notably, it included California-style measures to ban the sale of gas-powered cars by 2035, ban gas appliances, and ban gas-powered lawn equipment. Because MAG’s bill didn’t include any other safeguards or clarification on what “air quality” projects meant, it can be assumed it would be used in the future for such things as “cap-in-trade” like programs for carbon offsets, forced electrification, or expensive incentives or disincentives for reducing vehicle miles traveled.
MAG’s Plan Prioritized Ideological Agendas Over the Interests of Motorists
Last year we failed to recognize why there was such a radical shift in the kind of transportation policy being funded by MAG’s 400 extension plan. Only after broader investigation did we realize that an ideological agenda has infiltrated all levels of transportation planning, MAG’s plan being no exception.
This multi-dimensional effort by climate alarmists, urban planning bureaucrats, corporations poised to financially benefit, and the social justice warrior academics and activists, aims to use transportation and land use to reorient the way the majority of people live. Center of that fight is the personal automobile; as this cabal of interests would love nothing more than to see people forced to walk, bike, or rely on public transit and therefore relegated to dense urban environments, not conducive to how the majority of people live in the Valley.
That is why MAG doesn’t want to build new freeways, at least not the way normal people think about freeways. The only new freeway considered in the current MAG plan is the construction of SR30 in the west valley, a project that was supposed to be built under the existing tax but was scrapped because transit funding was prioritized instead. MAG has begrudgingly included funding for the SR 30 in the new plan, but only for a portion of the freeway and only in the 25th year (all but certain to be deferred, again).
And if that isn’t bad enough, the project design that won approval from MAG is called the “State Route 30 Active Transportation Conceptual Plan.” Surveys were conducted by MAG, giving respondents design options that included integrated bike paths and pedestrian walkways then feigned to ask what might concern someone riding a bike on the freeway by which most respondents replied with the number and speed of vehicles. Choosing a freeway without these features was not an option. Obviously, the only kind of freeway MAG will consider building at this point is a bastardized version that limits capacity and slows speed, contrary to the whole point of a freeway.
Lawmakers Should Bring Back the Sanity to Prop 400
The origination of the Maricopa County half cent sales tax in 1985 was a blessing to the valley. It octupled the number of freeway miles which created an abundance of connections between communities across the county. It made the economic flourishing, influx in population growth, and diversification of businesses possible in the following two decades.
A continuation of the tax could be nearly as valuable if it focused on simply supporting the free movement and mobility choices of people and freight, instead of a costly attempt to foist ideological value judgements on the way bureaucrats wish people would live and move. The Republican majority thus far has held the line on insisting any Prop 400 extension that proceeds is good for residents, businesses, and taxpayers.
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