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How very un-Tampa Bay: Light rail wins (again) in Phoenix election

Published Aug. 26, 2015

Phoenix voters on Tuesday approved a sales tax increase that would pay for an expansion of its light rail system.

By a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent, voters nearly doubled the sales tax for transit from 0.4 percent to 0.7 percent (the overall sales tax in Phoenix was bumped from 8.3 percent to 8.6 percent) until 2050 to fund 42 new miles of light-rail tracks, more bus routes and street improvements that are part of a $31 billion plan (also funded by passenger fares and federal and county money) called Proposition 104.

"This is a great night for the future of the city of Phoenix," declared Mayor Greg Stanton, a big promoter of the light rail initiative who also won reelection by a resounding 65 percent margin.

The victory for Phoenix light rail came three days after the system opened a new 3.1-mile extension into Mesa -- seven months ahead of schedule.

"In its first 20 miles, light rail has not only connected residents to jobs, education, retail, dining and entertainment, it has generated more than $8.2 billion in economic investment with plans for more on the way," said Phoenix City Councilwoman Thelda Williams. "Congratulations to Valley Metro and Mesa for successfully completing this much-needed extension."

The new line is anticipated to carry 5,000 daily riders. The entire system began construction in 2005 and started operating in 2008. Phoenix voters initially approved the system in 2000 by passing a 0.5 percent sales tax. It now serves Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa and has a weekday ridership of 44,000, which exceeds projections, making it the 13th busiest light rail system in the nation.

It might be safe at this point to call light rail a success in Phoenix.

Yet it wouldn't have happened if the city had followed the advice of the Goldwater Institute, which is based in Phoenix.

In a 2003 report, the libertarian think tank predicted light rail would fail.

"If policy makers do not reexamine the numbers, they may make a mistake of gigantic proportions," the study's author, John Semmens, wrote then.

In 2009, a spokeswoman for the institute famously (and "sheepishly") told the New York Times: "I've taken it. It's useful."

Makes one wonder what the difference is between Phoenix and Tampa Bay, which has also been advised through the years by its own hometown anti-rail think tank -- the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. Like the Goldwater Institute, CUTR has consistently opposed light rail projects.

Unlike Phoenix, Tampa Bay still has no rail.