Arizona may lose intercity commuter rail
By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Republican lawmakers are moving to forever quash the idea of intercity rail.
And they're doing it in a way that could force Democrat Gov. Katie Hobbs to go along.
The move comes as the Senate Committee on Transportation, Technology and Missing Children gave its approval Monday to continuing the state Department of Transportation. Without legislative approval, the agency which is responsible for road maintenance and construction, goes away July 1.
But the vote to continue the agency came only after GOP lawmakers added a series of conditions and restrictions. And one of them spells out that ADOT cannot accept any grants, donations, aid or other federal funds to operate or maintain a commuter rail.
"This is something out there that the people do not want,'' said Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek. He said it amounts to the state promoting 100-year-old technology.
Killing the idea of commuter rail between Phoenix and Tucson before it's even gotten off the ground is only one of the policy issues that Republicans stuffed into SB 1184. Other conditions they added to the legislation include:
- Prohibiting the agency from proposing plans to reduce carbon greenhouse gases;
- Build or maintain charging stations for electric vehicles;
- Reduce the number of lanes on any road;
- Consider or adopt a motor vehicle travel mile reduction plan.
Hobbs, however, may be unwilling to sign a measure laden down with all those issues.
"Politicizing ADOT's continuation is a non-starter,'' said gubernatorial press aide Christian Slater. "Arizonans want sanity, not chaos that threatens the agency that builds roads, bridges and critical infrastructure they rely on to get around safely each and every day.''
Hoffman said he has a particular interest in quashing the idea of a train, saying that several of the proposed routes run right through his district.
"This is something that the people out there do not want,'' he told colleagues on the committee. And Hoffman argued that if the commuter rail runs along the Union Pacific tracks between the two cities it would "cannibalize'' the transport of goods.
But the bottom line, he said, is that it would be a waste of money.
"Nobody's going to ride it,'' Hoffman argued, saying that has been proven by what he calls "completely ridiculous'' ridership numbers on light rail.
"We should be prioritizing those funds to go toward something like the expansion of the I-10,'' he said, calling it a "Katie Hobbs, Pete Buttigieg kind of idea,'' referring to the Secretary of Transportation in the Biden administration.
For the moment, there is no adopted plan and no funding.
But Amtrak officials announced in 2021 they were looking at three round trips per day, with a one-way time of about 2 1/2 hours.
And Hobbs announced in December that ADOT had obtained a $500,000 federal grant to continue studying the potential restarting Amtrak service between Phoenix and Tucson. Amtrak abandoned service to Phoenix in 1996 following a derailment near Hyder that killed a crew member and injured dozens of others.
Hoffman derided the whole idea.
"Democrats have this weird idea of going back like 100 years in technology as somehow the answer to commute issues,'' he said.
"People love their personal automobiles,'' Hoffman said. "They love the freedom that it entails them, they love the ability to go when they want, where they want, how they want.''
Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, said she doubts that most Arizonans don't want the option of intercity rail. But Hoffman said the number of people riding rail now compared with those in cars proves his point.
Another policy preference added to the legislation would bar ADOT from coming up with any programs designed to get people to use their vehicles less.
"This is another insane policy of the climate change leftists in this country who are pushing all sorts of alternative focal points,'' said Hoffman. "I want a transportation department that works for the people of Arizona when it comes to transportation, not one that social engineers and uses half-cocked faulty data to justify some insane social agenda.''
That characterization annoyed Sen. Teresa Hatathlie, D-Tuba City.
"It's not so much a leftist issue,'' she said. "It's an environmental issue.''
And Hatathlie said she sees from the personal level of ensuring her grandchildren have clean air.
"If you want to go and suck on somebody's tail pipe, be my guest,'' she said.
But Hoffman responded that claims that pollution is causing damage are not backed by science.
"This is a political agenda,'' he said.
While all the Republicans on the panel approved all the add-on amendments, Rep. Frank Carroll, R-Sun City West, said he wasn't sure that it was proper to make continuation of the needed agency contingent on all the conditions. He said he would prefer a "clean'' bill.
But Hoffman said the restrictions are justified, saying it is the role of the Legislature to oversee the operations of state agencies.
The measure now needs approval of the full Senate.
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