Image of planned Metrocenter light rail station

I’ve been with Valley Metro for couple of years now, but I still consider myself new to the transit industry. There’s a lot to learn! Part of that learning process has involved getting a grip on how Valley Metro pays for its various projects. After all, if I’m getting a paycheck, it’s nice to know where the money comes from. I’m sure there’s still more to learn, but here’s what I’ve found.

First off, there are many benefits that come from public transit. Valley Metro's bus and light rail service reduce the number of vehicles on the road. That means less stress from the pressure of operating a vehicle in traffic and fewer emissions due to our clean burning natural gas and low-emissions diesel engines and electric–powered light rail. Also, transportation funds can be spent on maintaining the roads and highways that already exist rather than expanding a system that will require additional maintenance for future generations.

Yet, with all of those benefits, you may wonder about the cost to build a light rail extension with a price tag of $400 million for the Northwest Extension Phase II project and more than $1 billion for the South Central Extension/Downtown Hub. Yes, that is a lot of money! 

Construction crews work on the Tempe Streetcar system

Building light rail is a large infrastructure investment. It involves relocating and replacing utility lines, such as sewer and water, that may be several decades old. It may mean building new bridges and creating beautiful streetscapes along with sidewalks and landscaping. It’s beyond a mere project; it’s an investment into our community. How Valley Metro funds these projects isn't a simple task, but here's a simple explanation of how it happens.

In short, there's a variety of sources. Federal grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) get some big headlines, for sure. The USDOT recently announced more than $150 million in a Capital Investment Grant supporting light rail. In March, there was another federal grant of nearly $530 million for the South Central Extension/Downtown Hub.

Aside from federal funds, there is a regional source of funds collected through Proposition (Prop.) 400, which was passed by Maricopa County voters in 2004 to build out the regional transportation plan.

Prior to Prop. 400, voters passed Prop. 300 in 1985 to establish a half-cent sales tax for freeways, public transit, and the creation of the Regional Public Transportation Authority. It was to be in effect for 20 years, and in 2004, it was extended for another 20 years with the passage of Prop. 400.

Picture of Valley Metro bus on a freeway

While the tax has been in place, the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) has been able to greenlight many improvements to transportation in the Valley. Loops 101, 202 and 303 were all funded with Prop. 400 funds. Valley Metro receives a third of the half-cent to split between bus and rail. Despite a huge economic hit to the fund in 2008 due to the recession, the Prop. 400 funds have supported expanded bus services, as well as some of the capital costs of building light rail and the new streetcar in Tempe.

Propositions 300 and 400 have had a huge positive effect on our region.  MAG estimates the propositions have resulted in more than $100 billion of time savings over the past 30 years. After all, time is money, and less time spent in traffic means more time to shop or deliver goods, which stimulates the economy.  MAG also estimates that transportation improvements have increased property values about 150% between 2000 and 2019. The light rail system has created more than $14 billion in investment along the line since 2008.

The need for investment in ongoing public transit projects increases with the Valley’s skyrocketing population. The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that Maricopa County’s population is growing faster than any other county in the nation.

All of those people will need a way to get around, and that will involve traditional methods of transportation like cars and trucks, mass transit like buses, light rail, and streetcars, and even future methods including bus rapid transit.

Picture of light rail train on crowded day downtown

Without another extension to fund regional transit and transportation, transit service will come to a quick halt.  The population will keep growing, but Maricopa County's transportation system won't grow with it.  That will lead to additional gridlock and lost efficiency, and ultimately hurt our region's ability to drive the economy of the Southwest.

To learn more about Prop. 400, check out OurMomentumPlan.com to get more facts and figures. The latest episode of Storylines also shares important insight from MAG’s Transportation Program Planning Manager,  Audra Koester Thomas.

Alex Tsotsos
Alex Tsotsos
Rail Operations Communications Specialist
Writer, editor, musician, gamer, and former news professional. Frequently seen at Phoenix Rising matches and jogging around Gainey Ranch. May throw things in the presence of typos.