Officials: Phoenix rail extension back on track after vote

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A light rail train stops for passengers, Monday, Aug. 26, 2019 in Tempe, Ariz. The latest numbers on mail-in ballots are expected Monday after the weekend for Tuesday’s special election weighing any future expansion to the light rail system in Phoenix, the nation’s fifth largest city. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX (AP) — A fall groundbreaking for an extension of a light rail system in Phoenix is back on track after voters rejected a referendum that would have killed any future expansion in the nation’s fifth-largest city, transit officials said Wednesday.

“We have been on hold for several months waiting for the results of the election,” said Valley Metro CEO Scott Smith. The regional transportation agency will now hire subcontractors and solicit bids for work on the $1.3 billion 5.5-mile extension (8.85-kilometer) to begin sometime in October.

“Now we are going to ramp up rather quickly.”

Unofficial results show that voters on Tuesday supported mass transit by soundly rejecting a ballot measure that sought to halt any future expansion of light rail.

Mayor Kate Gallego said Wednesday the vote underscored that residents want a modern, sustainable city that respects mass transit and urban development.

“This was really about the future of Phoenix,” the first-term Democrat said. She said the city is already scheduling community meetings to discuss the upcoming extension’s design with residents and business owners.

“Today, all of Phoenix wins,” said City Councilwoman Laura Pastor, whose late father, former U.S. Rep. Pastor, was an early champion of light rail.

Supporters of the proposition to kill light rail were stunned.

“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.”

The total number of ballots cast was 180,636, the highest ever in a city special election involving only ballot measures. An estimated 15,000 ballots has still not been counted. Mail-in ballots represented the majority of the votes cast and late returns were expected to trickle in through the end of the week.

Proposition 105 would have immediately stopped the rail’s extension into the working-class Hispanic and African American communities of south Phoenix, as well as other future extensions linking far-flung areas around the region.

“Last night, we crushed the Koch brothers and their anti-#transit allies,” said Sean D. Sweat , president of a leading Phoenix urbanist group. He was referring to charges that Proposition 105 was financed by groups tied to the conservative billionaire family.

Democratic Rep. Greg Stanton, a former Phoenix mayor 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 it is modest compared with others.

Now stretching more than 26 miles (42 kilometers), construction of Phoenix’s Valley Metro system started in March 2005 and service began 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.

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

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