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Republicans took a shot at light rail in the Prop. 400 deal, but the train chugs along

After months of negotiations, state lawmakers finally struck a deal that will allow Maricopa County voters to decide whether or not to extend a half-cent sales tax earmarked for transportation projects. But Republican lawmakers did all they could to restrict where and how those tax dollars can be used to fund the Valley’s light rail system.

Valley transit officials have spent more than a decade planning to build a 1.4 mile light rail extension to the Arizona capitol.

They planned to run tracks west on Washington Street, loop around the Capitol on 19th Avenue and run back downtown on Jefferson Street.

Republican state House Speaker Ben Toma (Peoria) said he originally thought the plan was a joke.

“What I’m offended by is the idea that it would come, effectively, on Adams, loop around on 19th and come back on Jefferson,” Toma said. “In other words, every legislator would have to literally cross this thing two or three times a day, just to get to their parking lot.”

The Capitol extension became a sticking point for Republican lawmakers in heated negotiations over what’s known as Proposition 400, a half-cent sales tax that has funded major road and public transportation projects in the Valley for the past four decades.

Voters will have the final say over whether or not to extend the tax another 20 years — the bill approved by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Katie Hobbs only crafted the question voters will be asked on the ballot in 2024.

But that question includes a key demand from Republican lawmakers: A 150-foot buffer around the Capitol complex designed to derail the Capitol extension as planned.

“It is not the plan I would’ve preferred,” said Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego.

Gallego said years of planning and millions of dollars have gone into the Capitol extension plan.

“I would’ve loved to see that direct light rail extension bringing so many people closer to democracy,” Gallego said.

But just because light rail won’t come directly to the Capitol doesn’t mean it can’t run nearby. Jessica Mefford-Miller is Valley Metro’s CEO.

“Valley Metro is already working with our partners at the City of Phoenix, Maricopa Association of Governments and the Federal Transit Administration to take a fresh look at the alignment for the Capitol extension project and come up with an alternative,” Mefford-Miller said.

It’s too soon to say what that alternative might be, Mefford-Miller said, but the Capitol extension is too important to future light rail expansion to be tossed aside.

Mefford-Miller said the Capitol extension would also open up a path to extend light rail along the I-10 corridor.

It’s a major priority for West Phoenix and the city overall, “and helps alleviate congestion on some of the busiest highway here in the Valley,” according to Mefford-Miller.

Valley transit leaders will go back to the drawing board and seek community involvement to secure approval for a new Capitol-adjacent plan.

“This prohibition on light rail within the Capitol corridor does lengthen the process,” said Mefford-Miller. “It will also very likely increase the project budget.”

It’s not just the Capitol extension that’s impacted by the new Prop. 400. Republicans also negotiated a ban on any future revenue from the half-cent sales tax being used for any expansion of the light rail.

That will make it more difficult to find funding to expand a system built in large part with federal grants.

“Each of those awards requires that we have a regional or local funding source to provide the match,” Mefford-Miller said.

Mefford-Miller said that past Prop 400 revenues were leveraged to draw down federal dollars for transit infrastructure. Instead, cities and towns will have to leverage local or regional tax revenues to qualify for future federal grants.

Even House Speaker Toma said the buffer around the Capitol — and language banning Prop. 400 revenues from funding extensions — won’t shut down light rail projects entirely.

“My guess is if they really wanted to do light rail or something, even though I disagree with it,” Toma said, “I’m sure they could find a way.”

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Kirsten Dorman is a field correspondent at KJZZ. Born and raised in New Jersey, Dorman fell in love with audio storytelling as a freshman at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2019.