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Phoenix voters say 'yes' to expanding light rail system

Posted at 6:50 AM, Aug 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-28 14:40:00-04

PHOENIX (AP) - Phoenix voters said "yes" to expanding light rail transportation in the nation's fifth largest city by soundly saying "no" to a measure that aimed to stop any more development of the system, according to unofficial returns.

Mayor Kate Gallego expressed confidence the measure known as Proposition 105 had been defeated.

"Light rail expansion is not stopping - not today, not tomorrow," Gallego said late Tuesday. "This campaign was never about one track of rail. It was about equity for our entire city and voters delivered on that promise."

Paul P. Skoutelas, the president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association, called the vote "a monumental day at the ballot box for public transportation in Phoenix."

Supporters of Proposition 105 were stunned their measure was losing.

"The numbers are so disappointing," said Susan Gudino, treasurer for the Building a Better Phoenix campaign that backed the initiative. "It doesn't make sense to me. I know we had more support."

Nevertheless, Gudino said the campaign was not ready to concede.

The total number of ballots cast totaled 180,636, the highest number ever cast in a Phoenix special election involving only ballot measures, with an estimated 15,000 to still be processed as of Wednesday morning.

Mail-in ballots represented the majority of the votes cast with the last returns expected to trickle in through the rest of the week.

Approval of Proposition 105 would have immediately stopped a planned 5.5-mile (8.85-kilometer) extension of the rail into the working-class Hispanic and African American communities of south Phoenix, home to numerous auto repair shops and Mexican markets.

It also would have halted future extensions designed to link far-flung areas around the Valley of the Sun, including one planned to the state Capitol and another to far western suburbs, home to many people who commute to the city's center for jobs and school.

"Last night, we crushed the Koch brothers and their anti-#transit allies," said Sean D. Sweat, president of a leading Phoenix urbanist group, referring to charges that Proposition 105 was financed by groups tied to the conservative billionaire family. "Phoenix's train will keep going and growing."

Newsman Dan Rather spoke out on his Twitter feed, saying "when residents in a city like Phoenix vote overwhelmingly to invest in public transportation (like they did yesterday) I think it's a sign of a possible sea change on how we are thinking of living and sustainability."

Democratic Rep. Greg Stanton, who backed light rail development, tweeted Wednesday that investment in public transportation was a way "to build a stronger city and country."

With a population of 1.6 million people, Phoenix is among other large cities in the U.S. with some kind of rail, but its system is modest compared with others, including New York City subways, Washington's metro, Chicago's L and San Francisco's BART.

Boston, Atlanta and Philadelphia also have some kind of rail system, and even the largely car-dependent Los Angeles area since 1990 has had Metro Rail, which has an average weekday ridership of nearly 350,000 people.

Now stretching more than 26 miles (42 kilometers), construction of Phoenix's Valley Metro system began in March 2005 and service was launched in December 2008. The agency says the system had about 15.7 million riders in 2018, with an estimated weekday ridership of nearly 48,000.

There was high interest in the light rail measure, with the mail-in ballots alone pushing the overall turnout to more than 22%, which is higher than that of other special elections held in the Phoenix summer, when many people leave to escape triple-digit temperatures. City voters had previously voted three times in favor of light rail.

A second measure, Proposition 106, was headed toward defeat by a large margin. It aimed to limit the city's spending until its pension debt is significantly reduced.