Phoenix, Arizona is about to vote on a ballot measure intended to sabotage light rail expansions. A Valley Metro Rail extension to South Phoenix set to open in 2023 would be the first casualty, but Proposition 105’s ballot language would actually ban new light rail outright, dooming all future expansion efforts. Voters in the City of Phoenix will decide on August 27th.

The measure is backed by conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch through their influential political action committee Americans for Prosperity (AFP). The local anti-transit front group is called Building a Better Phoenix (in true Orwellian fashion) and a Phoenix New Times investigation revealed the campaign’s mastermind Scot Mussi is connected to the Kochs via his employer, the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, an AFP-backed right-wing group. Mussi helped draft the proposal, contracted a signature gathering firm, and regularly advised Building a Better Phoenix members, the investigation showed.

As Laura Bliss reported in CityLab, conservative groups seized on some pushback by local business owners and motorists along the transit route. “It began with a seed of frustration among locals along South Central Avenue, which runs through a working-class section of Phoenix that is predominantly Latino and African-American,” Bliss wrote. “There, Valley Metro Rail planned to remove two traffic lanes to build 5.5 miles of light rail track. Worried that construction and a lack of space for cars would deter customers, a small group of business owners organized last year to demand the transit agency adjust their plans for the South Phoenix area.”

The Koch Empire Is Built on Car Dependence

It’s a playbook that the climate-change-denying Kochs have followed to block transit measures in cities like Nashville and Little Rock. Focus on delays to motorists and the hit to taxpayers, exaggerate the truth, and amplify that message with a huge influx of political spending. The Kochs built their corporate empire on the highway industrial complex. They drill the oil, pipe it, refine it, and sell it to you. Their asphalt builds highways and patches potholes. Coincidentally, conservatives can’t stop talking about potholes as soon as a transit project is proposed. Clearly they have a vested interest in ensuring that everybody drives everywhere and that transit languishes. And that’s why they come out ahead even as they spend millions of dollars on local anti-transit campaigns.

Hasan Minhaj made public transit the topic of his show, The Patriot Act, and highlighted the diabolical stunt the Koch Brothers are trying to pull in Arizona by astroturfing an anti-transit campaign just before Phoenix breaks ground on a light rail expansion.

Minhaj points out that by starving transit of funding, billionaires like the Kochs are trying to make the experience of transit-riding miserable and thereby force you to drive (or at least Uber). If you take climate change seriously, it’s an evil ploy, but it’s working. After a wave of negative ads and press, Nashville’s transit measure went down in flames, despite strong polling early on.

The 5.5 mile South Central extension is the southern spur. Phoenix voters approved a 2015 sales tax measure speeding up delivery of the line to 2023. (Credit: Valley Metro)

“Unlike Nashville, Little Rock, and other locales where Koch forces have helped [stop] transit projects from getting off the ground, light rail is well underway in Phoenix,” Bliss wrote. “The city’s ballot initiative will now be a test case for whether transit foes can stop a train that’s already left the station.” Valley Metro Rail has been a success story thus far. Its 26-mile route has exceeded expectations pulling in about 50,000 daily riders, and it has fueled a transit-oriented development boom in a region known for suburban sprawl.

“We’ve had more than $10 billion of public and private investment along the light rail line,” said Greg Stanton, the Arizona congressperson and former mayor of Phoenix. “Transit has made us a more urban environment. It gets us closer to our climate goals than anything will. It’s changed Phoenix in ways that nothing else ever has, and support for it has only grown around the Valley.”

Hopefully Phoenix voters are not fooled by Koch propaganda and fearmongering and turn out to the polls August 27th to oppose Proposition 105.

I-976: Is Seattle Next?

It can feel like we are safe in Seattle since transit is popular here. Lately, transit measures have passed by a healthy margins here–the $930 million Move Seattle levy passed with 59% in 2015 and the multi-billion-dollar Sound Transit 3 package passed regionwide with 54% of the vote in 2016. Recent polling has confirmed that public transit support remains strong in King County.

Still, it’s hard to get too confident when conservative political groups are poised to strike at any sign of weakness and billionaires like the Kochs are ready to funnel millions for them to do their worst. Enter Tim Eyman.

Washington state’s own conservative provocateur in Eyman is seeking to pull a Koch-flavored stunt with Initiative 976, which would strip Sound Transit of billions of dollars in car tab revenue and undermine Sound Transit 3 (ST3) and will be on your ballot in November. The Kochs and other oligarchs like them have funded Eyman and propped up his perennial anti-tax ballot amendments and ignored his embezzling of political action committee funds.

Although Sound Transit has taxing authority over only a limited area within the Seattle metropolitan area, Eyman’s I-976 appeals to the whole state of Washington to block Seattle from taxing itself. And since car tabs are an important source of funding for the Washington State Department of Transportation and local transportation departments across the state, I-976 would also throw transportation systems statewide into turmoil. Many cities big and small would suffer cuts.

It’s a really regressive, bad idea, but Washington state voters may be more swayed by anti-tax messaging than by pro-transit messaging. It’s going to be an absolute battle and the stakes are high. One of the biggest complaints about ST3 is that it takes too long to build the transit. I-976 would only add more delays. And climate change is not going to wait while we get it together as a civil society.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated all of Maricopa County would vote on Proposition 105. In fact, only residents of Phoenix will get to vote on the measure. The article has been updated to clarify that point.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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Paul W.

Why was my post on this removed? I-976 would not require Sound Transit to lower its tax rates because those taxes at current rates were used to secure 30-year debt. I-976 says that only if such bonds can be defeased or retired early, or refinanced, does the board need to take those actions (those acts are a prerequisite to lowering the tax rate). Why does the Urbanist want to silence the truth?


Hi Paul, Our moderator removed your comment because it misinformed readers. While that legal interpretation could theoretically save a portion of Sound Transit’s car tab fees, not all of the debt has been issued yet. Only a fraction has been issued in the last three years since ST3 passed. How would the remainder be saved when ST3 projects haven’t been fully designed yet, let alone put out to bid and contracted?

I think the bigger point is saying I-976 is no big deal is playing with fire. Leaving billions of dollars in transit funding up to a court battle is a really bad situation to put ourselves in. Even if we hold onto the funding we have, what would transit agencies do the next time they want to boost funding via car tab revenue? This isn’t just about Sound Transit, but dozens of transportation agencies that use the MVET to fund their operations around the state. Moreover, defeating I-976 would send a message we’re serious about climate action and mode shift, whereas defeat would set us back, both in terms of our climate goals and for building a consensus around building a transit-rich carbon-neutral state.

When it comes down to it, I-976 is a solution in search of a problem.

Paul W.

Of course not all the debt Sound Transit wants to sell has been issued yet. Because that car tax can not be reduced from current rates (by I-976 or any other legislation) that tax can be used along with other revenue sources to secure more bonds. Nothing in I-976 would prevent that.

I-976 was drafted so it would not impact Sound Transit’s tax rate, but it might impact the tax rates of other governments that have been lax and failed to secure it by some loan or other debt.

If I-976 passes there would be no court battle over Sound Transit’s tax (unless it was some futile effort to challenge how the board of ST interprets it, which is the way I interpret it). Would some government that collects this kind of tax and hasn’t secured it by pledging it to a loan or other debt contract sue to challenge it? Maybe, but that’s no big deal.

Paul W.

No, I’m against it but for reasons unrelated to Sound Transit. I’m posting here because this article falsely states that I-976 would impact Sound Transit’s revenue stream. It could not do so, because we know what the bond contracts say and we know what sec. 12 of the initiative says. Let’s say it passes, and the board does what sec. 12 of the measure says it can do (that is, nothing, because the bonds are secured by the tax at current rates and the contracts do not allow early defeasement or retirement, or refinancing). Then a suit by anyone to try to get a court to order Sound Transit to lower its tax rate when one of the conditions to lowering the rate spelled out in I-976 is not satisfied presents no threat to that government’s revenue stream.

Read the third paragraph from the end of that Times story, Doug. It point out the state’s fiscal analysis casts doubt on whether I-976 would be effective to reduce Sound Transit’s car tax rate. I’ve explained why — the terms of the bond sales contracts won’t allow it. Did the authors of that state fiscal analysis analyze the terms of those bond contracts? Apparently not, or they would have had the information they’d need to resolve the issue of “effectiveness” they raise.

Paul W.

No “chain of events” is possible. The Sound Transit board can not lower the car tax rate even if it wanted to. That is because the board in late Nov. 2016 adopted bond sale resolutions that pledged the taxes at current rates through 2048 to debt. Do you not understand how the contracts clause of the constitution works? Those bond sale contracts can not be changed by any action of the board if the change might impair the bondholders’ interests, and lowering the rate is an impairment of constitutional magnitude. Because of those bond sale contracts your concerns about possible “doubt” being cast on Sound Transit’s finances is completely baseless.