Aug 25, 2023 - Transit

23 years and $20 million later, the Capitol light rail plan is dead

A blurred light rail train.

The light rail can no longer extend to the state Capitol. Photo: Ash Ponders/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Winning the Republican state Legislature's permission to ask metro Phoenix voters to continue funding transportation came at the cost of a planned light rail extension that would have connected downtown to the state Capitol.

  • It was an idea $20 million and 20-plus years in the making.

Catch up quick: The deal struck between GOP legislative leaders and Gov. Katie Hobbs late last month prohibits light rail from coming within 150 feet of the state Capitol.

  • It was a sticking point for House speaker Ben Toma, who told reporters in July: "Nobody in their right mind would think that encasing a Republican legislature with light rail would be a good idea."

Why it matters: The compromise allows Maricopa County residents to vote to expand transportation options in the Valley — but pushes back the timeline on bringing light rail to west Phoenix because officials will have to reconfigure the route.

  • The $20 million of taxpayer dollars already spent on planning the now-dead route won't be recovered and there will be no transit access to the Capitol, something advertised to voters in multiple elections.
A map showing proposed light rail routes.
The light rail map advertised as part of the Transit 2000 election. Photo: Courtesy of City of Phoenix

Flashback: Phoenix voters first approved light rail in 2000 as part of the city's Transit 2000 plan, but not before rejecting it twice in the '90s.

  • Former Mayor Skip Rimsza tells Axios Phoenix the city decided to actually print the planned light rail routes on the ballot in 2000 to build trust with voters. He said he believed it was a key factor in winning approval for the transit system.
  • The map on the ballot was the first time voters saw the plan to extend rail from downtown Phoenix to the Capitol and, eventually, to the 79th Avenue park-and-ride.
  • Rimsza says there was no guarantee that every route on the map would come to fruition, but a commitment that if it did, the city would use the alignment featured on the map.

Between the lines: The Capitol extension was also included in the Proposition 400 plan supported by Maricopa County voters in 2004 and the Transportation 2050 plan approved by Phoenix voters in 2015.

Zoom in: Former Phoenix council member Peggy Bilsten was on the Transit 2000 steering committee and tells Axios Phoenix she considered the map on the ballot "a contract with the voters." She spent years convincing residents they should invest in the mass transit system.

  • She said it was wrong for the state Legislature to nix the line instead of asking voters to decide whether they wanted it to continue.

What they're saying: "It is so disappointing because people would say (to the steering committee), 'Can we trust you? Is this going to happen?'" Bilsten says.

Of note: The Phoenix City Council in recent years has decided to forgo other light rail projects included in voter-approved transportation plans, but it has done so before any significant money was spent on them.

  • In a joint statement, Valley Metro and Phoenix said about $20 million in Phoenix transit tax revenue, Prop. 400 dollars and federal funds has been spent on planning, engineering, environmental and community outreach work since 2007.

What's next: Phoenix and Valley Metro have committed to find another route to extend the light rail west to the Desert Sky Transit Center.

  • They hope to have alternative options for the community to consider late this year or early next year.

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