Disclaimer: The comments in this blog are my personal opinion and may or may not reflect an adopted position of the city of Glendale and its city council.

In the November 9, 2017 edition of the Glendale Star Councilmember Bart Turner offered a guest commentary entitled the “Top 10 reasons to proceed with light rail.” While he is a fierce advocate for light rail his position does not comport with a majority of city council. Those who gave direction to abandon moving forward with light rail were Mayor Weiers, Vice Mayor Hugh, Councilmember Malnar and I. There were only two councilmembers definitively in support of light rail and they were Councilmembers Turner and Aldama. Councilmember Tolmachoff never really responded in any clear cut fashion. Aldama’s position in an election year may not bode well for him as he seemed to ignore a great many downtown business owners opposed to the concept.

Before I launch into a rebuttal of Councilmember Turner’s commentary I want to recommend two articles written by Randal O’Toole that I found while researching this issue. The first, “The coming transit apocalypse” was published as a policy paper by the Cato Institute on October 24, 2017. Here is the link:
https://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/coming-transit-apocalypse .

The second, also by O’Toole was published in the Wall Street Journal on November 10, 2017. It is entitled “It’s the Last Stop on the Light-Rail Gravy Train: Mayors want new lines that won’t be ready for a decade. Commuters will be in driverless cars by then.” Here is the link: https://www.wsj.com/articles/its-the-last-stop-on-the-light-rail-gravy-train-1510354782 . Both are well worth reading.

Turner’s top reason for supporting light rail is that it was a component of Proposition 402 approved by voters on November 6, 2001, 16 years ago. I bet if light rail were on a ballot today it would go down in flaming defeat.

The specific ballot language said, “That all revenues from the 0.5% increase in the privilege and use tax authorized by this ordinance shall be deposited in a separate transportation fund that shall be used only for transportation purposes in accordance with Proposition Number 402 , including the following:

  • Intersection improvements
  • Street projects
  • Expansion of existing bus services
  • Increased Dial-A-Ride services
  • Express bus service
  • Regional light rail connection
  • Pedestrian and Bicycle Improvement Projects
  • Airport projects
  • Safety improvements”

 At that time the proposition was deliberately crafted to offer a potpourri of 9 items. The working assumption was that a menu of items was sure to appeal to various stakeholders. Light rail was included and its insertion onto the ballot measure was as contentious as its possible location. It was assumed at that time that this inclusion was the surest way to insure its passage by its advocates at that time.

And yes, Proposition 402 did pass on a vote of 8,313 yes votes (64%) and 4,664 no votes (36%). The ballot proposition was very general in its wording. It did not mandate that any of the above action items take precedence over any other. It also did not present a time line under which these items were to be completed.

It is fair to say that many of the voters wanted improved bus services as well as intersection improvements and street maintenance and repair. They were willing to accept all elements of the ballot in order to get the options that were important to them – streets, intersections and better bus service.  That was the voters’ agenda then and it remains the voters’ agenda now.

Turner goes on to state that there is enough city funding to get light rail to 51st Avenue and Glendale Avenue but that is not accurate as the estimated costs show a deficit of $400,00. See the chart below:

When we consider capital construction and operations & maintenance (O&M) costs — beware. Fares generate only one-quarter to one-third of operating expenses. There will be significant annual operational costs causing a redistribution of income from all taxpayers to subsidize light rail riders. Historically ridership fluctuates with the condition of the national economy. When gas prices are high or we are in the midst of a recession ridership increases. When gas is cheap or times are good, we climb right back into our cars. Soon we will see driverless cars whose cost of operation will compete very favorably with transit fares.

Light rail is very, very expensive. Typically it is 20 times the construction cost of all other forms of mass transit. Generally, construction delays and cost overruns are endemic. Federal and state subsidies are needed to construct the rail line and to maintain and operate the system. All federal grants require assurances. In other words, there are strings attached. One of those required federal assurances is that the light rail system will never be shut down.

What about the disruption to traffic and local businesses during construction? Most of the downtown businesses that would be affected by 2 to 3 years of light rail construction will end up closing or moving to another location. They are concerned and they have every right to be. Many are small businesses that cannot afford the kind of disruption that occurs with light rail construction. Many may end up being replaced by multi-family…most likely not high-end multi-family either.

What about Turner’s contention that light rail provides a “catalyst” for high-quality redevelopment? According to an Excel presentation provided to me by Valley Metro current development to-date along the existent light rail lines (Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe) show that anywhere from an estimated 3% to 30% of the investment in new development that occurs along a light rail route is public money (municipal funding). In addition it is quite likely that the incentive funding provided by the city to attract private development will have to compete with other General Fund priorities. In essence, taxpayer subsidies boost development along transit lines and around stations. Do you want to divert your taxpayer dollars to incentivize development along a light rail line? The catalyst will be city investment and city incentives offered to developers.

What kind of investment is typical along a light rail line? Again, based on information provided by Valley Metro, the new development tends to be a double digit percentage increase in the addition of multi-family (apartments) and the decrease of retail (percentage is variable from single digit decline to double digit decline).  Are you willing to trade downtown retail locations for apartments? Do you think the disappearance of existent stores and restaurants and the addition of more apartments in their stead is high-quality development? Did you know that properties near light rail stations in low income areas experience negative benefits?

Councilmember Turner suggests that, “a rubber-tired trolley can ferry light rail passengers throughout downtown.” Why would that be necessary? Light rail lines cannot be rerouted. They are fixed.  They create a certain inflexibility. Consider a rail breakdown or the permanent elimination of a temporary street closure caused by a special event (Glendale Glitters? Chocolate Affaire?) or a parade (Christmas parade?). There can be a permanent inconvenience to motorists when a street lane is lost or if they are required to wait behind a rail car while passengers get on or off. Motorists often react to light rail location by choosing alternate nearby streets. Suddenly the vehicular congestion migrates but still remains.

Turner suggests, “If Glendale abandons its light rail plan, $72 million paid by Glendale and other West Valley residents into the regional light rail fund will be transferred” to other light rail projects in the Valley. That is true. While Glendale chooses to opt out of light rail right that doesn’t mean that in future years Valley Metro may create other priorities in which Glendale may participate . At that time it will have access to those regional dollars.

Councilmember Turner does not mention the benefit of not establishing light rail now. Angel Rodriguez, in a Letter to the Editor in the November 2, 2017 Glendale Star asks, “The Oct. 23 article regarding the Glendale City Council killing plans for downtown light rail referred to a ‘decision 16 years after Glendale voters approved a sales tax increase, in part for light rail,’ raises the question of that part of the sales tax increase for light rail. How much of the sales tax increase starting 16 years ago was and has been set aside for that light rail that won’t happen? By now, it must be in the millions …” Approximately 40% of the sales tax collected was set aside and reserved for light rail. With the council decision not to proceed with light rail that money can be reprogrammed for other more immediate transportation needs. It can be used to enhance and increase bus service. A majority of our bus shelters are without shade. Just adding shade to these bus stops will increase ridership. The bus route along 83rd Avenue now goes from McDowell Road in Phoenix up to Bell Road in Peoria. Other routes may be able to be expanded or created.

 It can be used for intersection and street improvements. There are at least 5 intersections in Glendale in need of remediation right now. Some of those dollars could be reprogrammed to mitigate them. As another example, it can be used to connect Camelback Ranch to Westgate. Once that occurs, just as in the case of completing 95th Avenue south from Bethany Home Road to Camelback, it creates a catalyst for more businesses to locate and with it comes more jobs for Glendale’s residents. When the extension of 95th Avenue was planned and announced who came to town? IKEA with its hundreds of jobs. Those light rail transportation dollars can be reprogrammed to create enhanced connectivity between locations. With that activity comes more jobs to Glendale. City council, in a future workshop, will decide how to make the best use of the light rail dollars for other transportation needs.

Lastly, Councilmember Turner says, “Our image as the progressive future-looking city that Glendale is working hard to develop will be significantly harmed if we willingly choose to forgo this opportunity.” According to his perception, the same must be said for the other “dale” – Scottsdale. For it, too, has made the decision not to pursue light rail in its community. The four councilmembers, including me, that gave direction not to proceed with light rail at this time, in this location, do not accept his statement.

Glendale continues to be the location of choice for many businesses. Just this week, we celebrated the ground breaking for a BMW automotive franchise. BMW does extensive market research in making a decision as to where to locate another franchise. They, just as any other business looking for another location, cannot afford to make the wrong choice. They chose Glendale because of the positives Glendale offers to all new business locates. Glendale is on the move and the council decision to not move forward with light rail does not harm the amazing prospects for our future in any way, shape or form.

I understand Councilmember Turner’s frustration because the light rail decision was not the one he wanted. I’ve been there and done that. But council has made its decision and will reaffirm that decision in the form of a future Resolution to that effect. His continued advocacy for a position not supported by a majority of the city council will not change the outcome. Just as we agree to disagree, we respect his position on this issue; it’s time for him to respect our positions as well. Calling councilmembers “un-American” because of opposition to light rail does nothing to advance the issue and, in fact, is a violation of the City Council Guidelines for Conduct.

© Joyce Clark, 2017                 


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