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Transit In Maricopa County 'Good, But Really Confusing' As Pandemic Continues, Old Issues Resurface

Valley Metro CEO Scott Smith
Mark Brodie/KJZZ
Valley Metro CEO Scott Smith in 2018.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The pandemic has changed, at least temporarily, how many Arizonans use public transit. But as more of us are vaccinated and more people return to more traditional workplaces, the challenges that existed in public transit prior to COVID-19 will be back in the spotlight. The biggest challenge, no doubt, is funding. And that brings into focus extending Proposition 400, the half-cent sales tax to help pay for transportation. That was one of the themes of Valley Metro CEO Scott Smith's State of Transit speech, and he's here with us to talk more about it. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT SMITH: Good morning. How y'all doing?

GOLDSTEIN: Doing great. So, so the state of transit — without asking too broad a question — good, bad, in the middle somewhere in Phoenix?

SMITH: You know, it's good, but really confusing because of the impact that the pandemic has had, but also because we're really at an inflection point, sort of a, a point of decision in the next two or three years about what our future is going to look like and how we're going to fund not only transit, but transportation in general here in Maricopa County.

GOLDSTEIN: Scott, is there a general philosophy that has changed? We know many things will change with a Biden administration moving from the Trump administration. How does that affect big picture funding for transportation?

SMITH: Well, it's night and day. The Trump administration made no, made no bones about the fact that did not support funding of rail projects such as our South Central, even though we did work through finally and got through the Trump administration. But generally, they were not very supportive of those kind of projects. And the Biden administration, on the other hand, is very supportive. How that will translate into actual action — because it's really the Congress that decides the level of funding. And even through the Trump administration and bipartisan support for funding public transportation projects, both Republican and Democrats are basically united on that one.

MARK BRODIE: Scott, have you seen public perception of transit change in the Phoenix area during the pandemic?

SMITH: During the pandemic, I think it's, it goes along the same lines of everything else during the pandemic: People are taking a wait-and-see attitude. I think people look at riding on a on a light rail train the same way they look at going to a restaurant. Do I feel safe? Can I be socially distanced — just trying to figure out what their comfort zone is in being around other people. And there's no doubt that public transportation, if you get on the train or a bus, is very similar to being in any other area where there's other people there and the same questions arise.

BRODIE: So how do you try to convince people and allay their concerns that, yes, it is safe to to ride on light rail, for example?

SMITH: Well, first of all, I will say that there has not been a study anywhere in the world, even in places where public transportation operates, such as Japan and Korea, and with much greater density than we have, where a spread of the of the pan — of [COVID-19] is related to public transportation. So we start with the science that says that you should be able to feel safe, but we know we have to do better. So we, we have implemented very, very strict clean procedures. We fog our trains, we clean. We do require masks now, and it's actually a federal mandate. But we've been doing this for the last 10, 11 months. And we also make sure that our operators and our workers are protected and have sufficient PPE masks, other things that people should be able to feel safer, safer in public transportation than they do in any other public area, because it is a very much a controlled environment and we work hard to make sure everything's clean and safe.

GOLDSTEIN: Scott, let's come back to money and funding for what's going on. So Prop. 400, the extension, if in fact the sales tax is extended or expanded, that will have to take place in the next couple of election cycles at some point soon. What's your message to folks in terms of whether that should be extended or changed in some way?

SMITH: Well, the first message we have is I'm not sure that everyone fully appreciates or comprehends how transportation is funded here in the Valley. We drive on a wonderful freeway system, nice streets and, and a good transportation system and transit system without realizing that this half-cent sales tax, which we call Prop. 400 and was and was approved by voters in 2004, is a big reason for that. We aren't where we are today without that funding. That's been augmented by some local taxes, especially in Phoenix with the T2050 — Tempe, Glendale, all have dedicated transportation taxes. The Prop. 400 tax, the half cent, expires in 2025. That's not very far away. And if that goes away or is not extended, freeway projects, a large chunk of funding for transit goes away also. That's the first question. That's the first challenge, is recognize that we are where we are because of the investment. That investment will expire and needs to at least be extended. But the second thing is, is that the freeways we built, the train system we built and other things are now getting old and they need to be maintained and they need to be brought up to maintain the state of good repair. So just merely extending the tax with the same level of funding is not going to build the system to, to really accommodate the million plus people that are going to be here in the next seven to 10 years and the million after that. We need to expand the pot, either by increasing the tax or by other sources. We simply can't plan for the future by accepting the status quo.

BRODIE: Well, Scott if you need to, for example, expand the tax, do you have a sense of by how much you would need to do that to, to meet all of those needs?

SMITH: I don't. I know that 14 other counties in Arizona have the ability to go to their voters and go up to one cent, 1%. In Maricopa County we're limited; we're the only county in the state that is limited to a half cent. I don't know if that's the only answer. It'll depend on what projects, what services policymakers want to include in that. But I also know that we have just a few of the, of the 30 communities in metro Phoenix who have their own taxes to supplement that half cent, that half cent, that regional tax. So there's a variety of ways that we can increase funding. Also, the state, except for some roadways, does not contribute anything to transportation funding within metro Phoenix. No transit funding. We get nothing from the state. So there's a variety of ways we can increase our investment in transit specifically other than just the half cent sales tax, whether it's expanding the tax, including some local — more local funding, having more state involvement — all of these should be on the table. Private investment — those kind of things should be on the table for expanding the pot of money that's available, because transportation investment has served us well. We need not only continue that, but we need to recognize that what we have right now isn't going to meet the needs of our future, of the future.

GOLDSTEIN: We will stop there. That is Valley Metro CEO Scott Smith. Scott, thanks as always. Be well.

SMITH: Thank you.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.