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Officials: Extension Needed for Transportation Tax

Traffic moves on the Loop 101, August 1, 2014, near Indian Bend Road. Work begins later this month on a project that will add additional lanes in both directions between Loop 202 and Shea Boulevard. Photo credit: Mark Henle/The Republic

By Parker Leavitt for The Arizona Republic

Hop on an express bus from Goodyear to Phoenix. Cruise along Loop 303 past Luke Air Force Base. Scoot into the carpool lane on the Pima Freeway portion of Loop 101 to avoid a painful commute home.

None of that was possible a decade ago, until Maricopa County voters renewed a 0.5 percent sales-tax increase to improve the region’s sprawling transportation network. When Proposition 400 won 58 percent of the vote in November 2004, George W. Bush was still in his first term as president and Facebook had just 1 million users.

Much has changed since then. The tax has raised about $3.1B for dozens of freeway, street and transit projects, but that vast sum is still $1B less than initially projected, with the Great Recession largely to blame.

The revenue gap is expected to widen to about $3.2B over the next decade, until the Prop. 400 tax expires in 2025. As a result, regional officials say, the public will almost certainly be asked to approve another tax extension, perhaps as soon as 2020.

Without an extension, the revenue shortfall could jeopardize freeway ­expansions in the East and West Valleys, a planned light-rail extension into northeast Phoenix and more than two dozen surface-street projects across the region.

Not surprisingly, regional planners are already starting to gauge the public’s appetite for a “Proposition 500” tax extension and initially considered calling for a vote in 2016, Maricopa Association of Governments Transportation Director Eric Anderson said.

What’s being done

Prop. 400 sales-tax revenue, boosted by about $2.7B in federal money, has paid for light-rail construction, express and “super-grid” bus routes, major freeway expansions and nearly 50 other surface-street improvements thus far.

One of the major differences between the current transportation tax and its predecessor, approved in 1985, is the development of a more robust public-transit system anchored by buses and light rail.

In Phoenix alone, Prop. 400 has paid for 260 new buses, with 80 more coming in the next few weeks, said Ken Kessler, the city’s deputy public-transit director. The tax also funded the purchase of 155 new Dial-a-Ride vans, he said.

Phoenix is also using the tax revenue as the local funding source to match federal dollars paying for transit hubs, including a new park-and-ride lot at 24th Street and Baseline Road and a transit center near Desert Sky Mall.

Despite lackluster revenue, the sales tax continues to bring in enough funding to move forward with the South Mountain Freeway portion of Loop 202, expected to cost $1.9B, and more improvements to Interstates 10 and 17 at a cost of $1.7B, Anderson said.

The budget also has room for an 11-mile light-rail extension from downtown Phoenix past the state Capitol to 79th Avenue, expected to take nearly $800M in regional funds.

Read more at The Arizona Republic