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Fight over light rail, pensions sees increased voter turnout

Posted at 12:01 PM, Aug 26, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-26 15:01:02-04

PHOENIX — Campaigning over the future of mass rail transit in Phoenix rolled into the final stretch Monday as more voters returned early ballots weighing whether to halt all expansion of the light rail system.

Early mail-in ballots have already pushed overall turnout for Tuesday's special election higher than one held four years ago at the height of the Phoenix summer, when many people leave to escape triple-digit temperatures.

The City Clerk received around 165,025 completed ballots by Friday, said spokesman Matthew Hamada. That's about 30% of 549,128 early ballots sent to voters who requested them, and 21.5% of all the city's 764,653 registered voters.

The turnout by Phoenix voters was 20.8% on Aug. 25, 2015, when they approved Proposition 104, which included a tax increase to pay for transportation projects over 35 years, including the light rail. The final vote was nearly 55% for the increase and around 45% against.

Voters in the nation's fifth largest city overwhelmingly vote early by mail, with between 88% and 97% of all ballots in the last three citywide elections cast by early ballot, the clerk's office says.

Now stretching more than 26.3 miles (42.3 kilometers), construction of the Valley Metro light rail system began in March 2005 and service began in December 2008. The agency says the system served about 15.7 million riders in 2018, with a weekday ridership of nearly 48,000.

The rail is used by high school and college students and working professionals, as well as disabled and elderly people who find bus travel difficult. Rail critics point out the system is also heavily used by homeless people.

A second measure, Proposition 106, aims to limit the city's spending until its pension debt is significantly reduced.

A group called Building a Better Phoenix organized the anti-rail initiative. Supporters include business owners along the planned south Phoenix extension route and City Council members Sal DiCiccio and Jim Waring.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and the other council members oppose the measure, saying the rail system would lose millions of dollars in federal funds that cannot be used for other purposes. The Greater Phoenix and Arizona Hispanic chambers of commerce, city firefighters, local unions and the AARP chapter also oppose Proposition 105.

Those groups also oppose Proposition 106, saying it could slash funding for libraries and other city services such as public swimming pools and community centers.

More information is available on the clerk's website.