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Arizona to Other States: Take Our Transit Funding… Please

8:20 AM PDT on April 22, 2010

Streetsblog founder Aaron Naparstek passes along this tale of
legislative dysfunction from sunny Phoenix, Arizona. The narrator is
former Arizona state legislator Steve Farley, a former public artist and
community activist who recently
brought home a $63 million TIGER grant to fund a new streetcar in Tucson
It's a good thing the feds provide funding opportunities outside the
Highway Trust Fund formula, or else it would be even harder to invest in
efficient, sustainable transportation in Arizona -- a state that goes
to extraordinary lengths to avoid spending on transit. Farley's story
explains why this is still the case:

Here's a little narrative that says a lot about how this place

Senator John Nelson (R-Glendale), in his role as the chair of the
Senate formerly-known-as-Transportation Committee, sponsored a bill
(SB1137) supported by the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) to
allow them to do a number of things, mostly technical, that they need
to do to provide a working transportation system for the state.

One of those things was really important: A proposed provision to
allow us to set aside a small portion of the Vehicle License Tax (VLT)
we already collect in order to draw down federal matching funds for
public transit projects in Arizona, especially passenger rail projects
in Maricopa and Pima Counties and between Tucson and Phoenix.

Here's a bit of background. We pay 18 cents in federal taxes on
each gallon of gas we buy in Arizona. That money gets sent to
Washington. We get it back if we put up a certain percentage of matching
funds from the Arizona gas tax or some other source. Currently, 15 of
those federal cents go into a Highway Fund for road projects, and three
cents go to a Transit Fund for public transit projects. That works out
to about $500 million per year for Arizona roads and $100 million per
year for Arizona transit.

The problem is, the Arizona constitution says that our state gas
taxes can only be spent for use on roads. That means that we are able to
draw down all of our $500 million for roads, but none of our $100
million for transit, since we have no dedicated source for the transit
match. Consequently, our Arizona transit money gets sent to other states
that do have dedicated matches for their transit projects. They get the
jobs, they get the trains, and they get the buses. We get the shaft.

Leveraging some money we already have to take our money back from
other states is a really good idea. 

That why the bill came out of the Senate with no opposition.
Until it met Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Gilbert), the same Transportation Chair
who has killed my ban on driving while texting for four years in a row.
Mr. Biggs does not believe that we should spend any transportation money
on transit that could be spent on highways.

So he refused to hear this ADOT omnibus bill in his committee (a
necessary step for its passage) unless ADOT agreed to remove the transit
matching fund language, and unless ADOT agreed to publicly support this
removal. I tried to stop this amendment in committee using a series of
parliamentary maneuvers, but was unsuccessful at that level because Mr
Biggs said he would kill the bill if that provision remained.

But I did not give up because this is a vitally important issue.
Federal transportation funding is increasingly moving toward rail and
other transit, and the federal transit funding could double or even
triple in upcoming years. Without this fund, we will lose out on being
able to bring all our money back, and become even more of a "donor
state" than we are today. So I went to work, lobbying House Republican
members last week and weekend.

Yesterday, SB1137 was debated during Committee of the Whole (COW)
on the house floor. I moved an amendment that would restore the transit
matching fund to the bill. I obtained the support of the sponsor
Senator Nelson, and several Republicans rose up on the floor to support
my amendment as well. When the voice vote was taken, the Chair of the
COW was in doubt, so we went to a head count. My amendment to the
committee amendment won 30-19, with nine Republicans in support.

Mr Biggs then rose in opposition to his own committee amendment
because I had successfully amended it. Again on a head count we won
30-19.  Mr Biggs told members that he opposed my efforts because ADOT
had not publicly opposed his efforts to remove the transit fund.

Once we had won decisively with bipartisan votes -- twice -- Mr
Biggs decided to kill the whole bill rather than allow that provision he
opposed to move forward. During his argument to finally kill the bill,
he gave up the angle that he was opposing the fund in order to support
ADOT, but instead admitted that he felt that the establishment of the
transit fund was "stealing from highways to build transit".

In the headcount on that vote to retain the bill on the calendar,
all the Republicans voted with him because their caucus etiquette is to
never oppose a caucus member on a procedural matter. Thus did we lose,
wiping out those two earlier victories along the way.  The good news is
that we gained a lot of Republican allies on this totally bipartisan
issue that will prove very important in the future.

This morning, 1137 appeared on a COW calendar again. I offered my
amendment once more in order to hammer home the case, but did not push
to force a headcount after the voice vote was called against me because I
did not want Mr Biggs to kill the underlying bill once again. We
third-read the bill without the transit fund in the afternoon and handed
it back over to the Senate. At least the issues were well argued. I
believe we will prevail sooner or later because time and history are on
our side.

If you'd like to keep up with this storyline and the inner workings
of the Arizona state legislature, you can sign up for the highly
engrossing "Farley Report" on
Farley's website

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