Light Rail Fight Derails Phoenix City Council Budget Vote
Phoenix’s mayor thinks it’s a "first" for the city. On Wednesday, council members failed to pass a budget — a budget that’s supposed to start July 1. And the fight over light rail helped derail it.
When Mayor Thelda Williams heard the vote results for the city’s operating funds budget was 4-4, she immediately acknowledged it had failed. A four-second pause followed before she said, “I have no idea what we do now.”
The “no” votes from fiscal conservatives Jim Waring and Sal DiCiccio were expected. And over the past few weeks, Laura Pastor has opposed the budget because she thinks certain constituents were ignored during the hearing process.
The surprise vote came from Michael Nowakowski. He cited complaints from residents and businesses owners who oppose the current light rail extension plan along Central Avenue into south Phoenix.
“I want to make sure this budget reflects all those individuals I represent in my district,” he said.
After a five-hour special meeting on Tuesday to address the south Central extension and more testimony during Wednesday’s formal meeting, the council agreed to move forward with the project. But the current plan to reduce Central Avenue to two lanes could change as a result of a motion made by Councilman Michael Nowakowski.
He and Pastor convinced the majority of their colleagues to direct city staff and Valley Metro to come up with an alternative design that keeps four lanes for cars. The motion also called for an independent facilitator to be involved in a comprehensive community engagement process to discuss the full impact, costs and benefits.
“I think we’ve heard it very loud and clear,” said Valley Metro CEO Scott Smith. “We will certainly be under a microscope as to how open we are so we have that charge and we have that challenge which we will live up to.”
In 2014, the council approved the plan and in 2015 city voters approved a transportation tax to help fund the extension. Light rail proponents say the election garnered more than 70 percent support in south Phoenix while critics point out the election – held in August- had very low turnout.
Smith said the two-lane design was chosen in an effort to maintain the cultural and heritage makeup of south Phoenix which includes many small businesses and longtime family businesses.
To maintain four lanes and add light rail, he said would basically require partially or fully tearing down 60 to 80 buildings.
“Destroying that many buildings will destroy the nature of Central Avenue,” he said. “The citizens will have every opportunity to judge what is presented to them, to ask questions t and we will have an open and honest process and then at the end of the day if the citizens have decided, ‘We want to choose something else’ we will work to see what we can do to make that happen within the confines of what we’ve got.”
Councilman Sal DiCiccio, a vocal critic of light rail, isn’t buying it.
“This is code for, we’re about to put together one of the crummiest plans on the planet that you’re going to hate, and you’re going to be stuck with a bad decision either way,” he said. “That’s exactly what you just heard here guys. Don’t fall for this crap.”
Smith said there is a July 31 deadline to enter the engineering phase and keep federal dollars flowing. The six-mile south Central extension is expected to cost close to a billion dollars with federal funds making up nearly $600 million.
The council will reconsider the budget at its next meeting. In a written statement, Mayor Williams said:
“Next week the City Council will reconsider the 2018-19 budget. Passing a budget is the most basic responsibility of the council and we must meet the obligation we have to those we serve. I want to thank city staff who have done an exceptional job preparing the budget for Council consideration — especially City Manager Ed Zuercher and Budget Director Jeff Barton. Phoenix residents, businesses and employees should be assured that the city will continue to operate and provide the excellent services they have come to expect. “