As transportation officials struggle to develop the region's infrastructure in a dismal economy, civic leaders are splitting along a familiar fault line: East Valley vs. Westside.
During recent meetings in which discussions centered upon the grim future of expanding the networks of freeways and buses, the two halves of the Valley seemed divided over who would be receiving what little money there is to go around.
Due to shrinking revenues, planners must make drastic cuts. Entire freeways are disappearing from maps plotting the future, and bus service is being pared back to levels some fear will be almost useless to the commuters who need that transportation.
"The fact is, we're not just in another deficit. We're in a new economic reality," said Mesa Councilman Scott Somers, a member of the Valley Metro transit agency's board of directors.
Reality is biting hard because Proposition 400's half-cent sales tax, passed by Maricopa County voters in 2004, isn't generating the funding expected for operations and improvements for highways, roads, buses and light rail.
Authorities have said they expect a shortfall, compared with earlier projections, of about $3 billion. The funding is split roughly 60 percent to freeways, 30 percent to transit and 10 percent to major streets and intersections.
And the outlook gets bleaker by the moment: The Arizona Department of Transportation recently said revenue collected this May, compared with May 2008, fell 18.2 percent. The slump seems to be accelerating, too, as the April '08-to-April '09 drop was 17.8 percent.
"This is not going away," Valley Metro executive director David Boggs informed the board on Thursday.
Last week, planners set forth proposals reflecting these tough economic times. Some projects were scrapped, while others were "value engineered," meaning what might have been state-of-the-art traffic systems in better times are now bare-bones arrangements.
For example, the junction of U.S. 60/Grand Avenue and the to-be-built Loop 303 no longer will be a full interchange. Engineers with the Maricopa Association of Governments instead have proposed an intersection that admittedly is less effective but slices the price tag from $200 million to $50 million.
The penny-pinching didn't sit well with a Peoria councilman on MAG's Transportation Policy Committee. Ron Aames, during Wednesday's meeting, wanted to know why cuts were being made there, yet MAG is forging ahead with plans to build more car-pool lanes.
Loop 202 in the East Valley alone is slated to receive 33 miles of new lanes for high-occupancy vehicles.
Aames was told by MAG transportation director Eric Anderson and engineer Bob Hazlett that HOV lanes, constructed for $3 million per mile, are "very, very cost effective," considering the benefits of less traffic, less pollution and greater safety. (Car-pool lanes result in a freeway's median having a concrete wall, rather than a barricade of wires.)
Meanwhile, Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs complained of an inadequate intersection at the 303 and the Northern Parkway, a proposed high-capacity arterial roadway with overpasses at major intersections that would connect Loop 303, Loop 101 and Grand Avenue.
At one point in Scruggs' hectoring, Anderson interjected, "This is not easy."
In MAG's proposal, the East Valley also loses freeway infrastructure. Gone are three miles of the proposed Williams Gateway Freeway, 33 miles of general-purpose lanes on Loop 202, two new highway interchanges and dedicated HOV ramps connecting U.S. 60 with the 202.
Scruggs continued her protests at the Valley Metro board meeting. The board was to vote on a "placeholder" option for bus system improvements, which would bring the budget into balance while buying time for a committee to design how best to help the entire region during this financial crunch.
One proposal leaned toward expanding routes at the expense of capital projects, such as park-and-ride lots and maintenance centers. A second alternative provided more of a balance.
But the first proposal, set forth by Scruggs, would have brought far more buses into the Westside.
Vocally opposing the Glendale mayor were Somers and Chandler Councilwoman Trinity Donovan. After the two referenced the necessity of maintaining service to the East Valley's hubs of employment, Scruggs said, "It's pretty clear there is some belief there will be no job centers west of Rural Road."
Scruggs' proposal was voted down 8-6, with the results splitting on geographic lines; united with their nays were Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, Queen Creek, Scottsdale and Tempe. Also throwing their support to that side were Phoenix and, oddly, Goodyear.
The next opportunity for intra-Valley division comes Wednesday, when MAG's Regional Council is expected to discuss freeway planning.