Valley Transportation Planners ‘Imagine’ Another Sales Tax Extension

Courtesy of ADOT

By Adrienne St. Clair for Arizona Builder’s Exchange

Transportation planners for Maricopa County are getting an early start on plans to extend Prop. 400 – a 0.5 percent sales tax increase approved back in 2005. Not only did they unveil their new “Imagine” proposition at the December APA/ASLA Networking Event Wednesday, Dec. 5, but they delivered the preliminary planning presentation nearly seven years before Prop. 400 will actually expire.

Leading the presentation was Audra Koester Thomas from the Maricopa Association of Governments. She said the deadline for the new extension isn’t far away at all, but “really overnight for us.”

Thomas is the transportation planning program manager at MAG, the metropolitan Phoenix area planning agency that led the development of Prop. 400 almost fifteen years ago.

The upcoming plan to extend the sales tax increase has been informally known as Prop. 500 in keeping with the naming convention of its predecessors Prop. 400 and 300. However, according to Thomas, the name “Imagine” is meant to convey the possibilities of the future of transportation in the Valley —and also work around bureaucratic red tape where the name Prop. 500 is concerned.

The details of “Imagine” are, in every sense, yet to be determined. But Thomas and her team don’t actually have until 2025 to figure it out. Federal statutes require agencies like MAG to design regional transportation plans with a 20-year lifespan, but they also require these plans to get on the ballot in an election year. So, while Prop. 400 still has years left in play, Thomas and her team are preparing to get its extension on the November 2022 ballot. And though they’ve technically got November 2024 if the 2022 vote doesn’t go well, Thomas doesn’t think of it like that. She’s completely focused on what happens four years from now.

“If we fail [in 2022], we’ve failed,” she said.

And she and her colleagues at MAG don’t want to fail. Thomas outlined a four-year plan of research, analysis and development to determine what the Valley needs and what its residents want. Thomas and her colleagues started running focus groups back in October and have set a goal to conduct a survey with more than 50,000 participants.

She hopes the resulting “Imagine” proposition will be a plan that provides residents with multiple choices for transportation, and said that increasing options is the way to avoid congestion, as new freeway space is limited and the Valley continues to sprawl.

There are metropolitan planning organizations all across the country, but Thomas said MAG is the second largest planning organization in geographical size. The area is larger than the state of Maryland, she said.

The area’s size and continued fast-pace of growth are what inspired the original sales tax increase to fund transportation efforts. In 1985, the area was growing so fast that several mayors realized federal funds alone wouldn’t provide for the much needed freeways. As a solution, the county passed a local sales tax increase to provide more money for transportation infrastructure. According to Thomas, Prop. 300 was one of the first local sales tax increases passed in the country to fund transportation, even as it’s now a common practice across the U.S.

When Prop. 300 was set to expire in 2005, Prop. 400 was passed in November 2004. Prop. 400 promised to finish the freeways, add transit and improve streets.

However, several projects haven’t begun since they were promised in 2005. Thomas blames this on a loss of almost 10 years in revenue during the Great Recession. In 2014, The Arizona Republic reported that revenue was $1B less than expected.

Carol Ketcherside, deputy director of planning at Valley Metro and one of just more than a dozen attendees Wednesday morning, echoed that, saying, “Of the things we promised, we lost 40 percent because of the Great Recession.”

Thomas also said that when the economy finally bounced back, the revival brought unpredictable market conditions. Even as revenue began to increase, costs rose, too —  by 50 to 70 percent in some cases.

“We have a really great story to tell in terms of the Great Recession,” she said.

Thomas can’t guarantee that “Imagine” will include projects promised in Prop. 400. However, lawmakers just decided to pursue a $68M project on Loop 101, and they will be deciding on two more projects in January. According to Thomas, the plan for what to do with remaining Prop. 400 projects will be completely evaluated by Summer 2019.

Thomas said they will use the next few years as a time to really reevaluate the future of Valley transportation. The Valley has changed since 2005 when Prop. 400 was first passed, and regional planners want to use the money for what the area needs. And according to Thomas, that will be tricky.

“I’m telling you right now, we have more needs than funding will allow to support,” she said.

Thomas anticipates the new “Imagine” will have less tangible projects than Prop. 400 and will focus more on public health, economy and safety and include things like operations improvements and maintenance — things she called “soft” measures. Planners may also explore the possibility of regional bus rapid transit or even implementation of a commuter rail to make it easier to travel between Valley cities.

Thomas wonders about who will support the new “Imagine” proposition, as Prop. 400 had contractor and developer support largely due to the new freeway construction. She says it’s too soon to tell.

“Champions will be largely colored by what the plan has in it,” she guessed.

But Imagine’s success will ultimately depend on whether Thomas and her colleagues will be able to communicate their vision to Maricopa County voters.

“At the end of the day, the public has to vote for this plan,” she said.

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