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The Arizona Republic
Serena Unrein

This guest commentary by Serena Unrein, public interest advocate for Arizona PIRG, appeared in the November 12, 2010 edition of the Arizona Republic.

Before the Metro light rail started operating in December 2008, media and elected officials often speculated if light rail could be successful in the Valley.

Since its inception, the system has proven to be enormously popular with Arizonans, with ridership numbers continuing to increase this year. The initial success of light rail has generated enthusiasm for future expansion, but the economic downturn has delayed the planned extensions and there is uncertainty as to whether some of the extensions will be built.

Light rail creates a number of public benefits in the Phoenix metro area, including reducing congestion and pollution. It also provides a transportation option for those who do not wish to or cannot drive, which will be increasingly important as the population ages. In addition, the new transit system has encouraged economic development in the area and received praise from small-business owners along the line.

The Metro light rail system relies primarily on sales-tax revenue. But during a recession, sales-tax revenues fall, even as the need for public transit increases. Most of the planned extensions for the rail system were to be paid for through the Proposition 400 sales tax, which was enacted by Maricopa County voters in 2004. But the current estimates of revenues for the 20-year life of the sales tax are 38 percent lower than expected.

Many public-transit systems receive at least some funding from the state's general fund. When the Arizona Legislature eliminated $22 million in funding for public transportation earlier this year, Arizona became one of five states not to provide any money for public transportation.

And since the state faces an extreme budget shortfall, robust state funding for transit is unlikely to materialize in the short term.

Other opportunities for public-transit funding exist, though.

To expand the light-rail system, it is essential to find reliable, dedicated revenue sources. While there aren't any "silver bullet" solutions for funding public transit, funding options do exist.

Gas taxes fund public transit funding in 15 states, but in Arizona, gas-tax revenues are restricted to highway and road purposes by the state constitution. To use gas-tax monies to fund transit in Arizona, voters would need to approve a constitutional change via a ballot initiative. While this would be a serious undertaking, it is an option worth exploring.

Another funding tool is to charge development-impact fees, which are used for specific infrastructure needs and are paid by developers.

A further option is allowing money from the vehicle-license tax to be dedicated to public transit; 20 states (Arizona not among them) use these taxes to provide funding for public transit.

The above are just a few of the options that exist to fund transit. Others can be found at

Providing more transportation options in Arizona will be key to our state's economic development. For a strong future, we must find ways to invest now in the Valley's light rail.

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