Public transportation has long had strong support from voters and elected officials in Tempe, but now one of the city’s mayoral candidates wants to at least tap the brakes on a proposed streetcar.
Councilman Mark Mitchell is opposing building the 2.6-mile line in the near future because he said the city can’t afford its $3 million annual operations cost and he doubts the federal government will chip in its share.
“I support public transportation, especially light rail and the streetcar, but we’ve got to be fiscally responsible,” Mitchell said.
His opponents in the 2012 election, restaurateur Michael Monti and former councilwoman Linda Spears, are more supportive.
Tempe is moving toward building a $130 million streetcar on Mill Avenue from Rio Salado Parkway to Southern Avenue to improve downtown access. If approved, construction would begin in 2013 and it would likely open in 2016.
About two-thirds of the cost is available locally through the voter-approved Proposition 400, while a third would come from the federal government.
The streetcar would create a deficit in the city’s transit fund for its first four years of operation, Tempe projects. The City Council is studying ways to fill the $3 million annual gap with options that include selling land, opening its transit system to advertising, eliminating some bus routes and other new revenue.
Mitchell said he opposes advertising or one-time funding sources like the sale of property for operating expenses. He said he has further doubts after meeting the Under Secretary of Transportation and hearing that federal funds can’t cover existing programs. He wants to build the streetcar, only after the city’s finances improve.
Spears said she understands Mitchell’s concerns but thinks the city has identified enough money to fill the gap. She expects other money will come in by the streetcar generating economic development.
Spears notes Mayor Hugh Hallman’s stance.
“Hallman, who is pretty conservative, feels comfortable that the operational funds are there,” Spears said.
She supports advertising inside transit vehicles but not at shelters.
Monti said Tempe should move on the streetcar if it can avoid deficit spending. He supports advertising and wants to identify ways to fund the system.
“I will error on the side of innovation,” he said. “I like anything that is more likely to bring development to Tempe and increase property values and I would certainly try to find everything in my power to sustainably fund it.”
Tempe has backed transit more than its neighbors. When Valley voters overwhelmingly rejected the 103-mile Valtrans elevated train network in 1989, Tempe was the only community where a majority of voters supported it. Tempe voters went on to approve a permanent half-cent sales tax in 1996 for transit. Some funding went to studying rail transit in Tempe, and some of that work supported the Metro light-rail system that opened in 2008.
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