Arizona to Other States: Take Our Transit Funding… Please

Streetsblog founder Aaron Naparstek passes along this tale of legislative dysfunction from sunny Phoenix, Arizona. The narrator is Arizona state legislator Steve Farley, a 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 works.

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.