ValTrans: An Idea Ahead of Its Time

Aug 3, 2014

Phoenix is a large metropolitan city with a population of about 4.1 million people. When you compare Phoenix to similar cities like Boston (4.6 million people) and Atlanta (5.5 million people), they have something we do not: a large-scale mass-transit system.

There is a reason for this: Phoenix is a much larger city geographically than these other cities. The greater Boston area is about 4,676 square miles while Atlanta is about 8,376 square miles. Phoenix, by comparison, is a staggering 16,573 square miles - more than double the size of Atlanta with a million fewer residents!


The large, sprawling size of Phoenix means that it's not cost-effective to build a subway or commuter rail system like it is in those other cities. The amount of track to lay or tunnels to dig would be enormous by comparison.

Still, city planners of the 1980s forecasted the explosive growth of Phoenix and recognized the city's growing need for mass transportation. In 1989, the Regional Public Transportation Authority (RPTA) came up with a plan that they thought would help.

Proposition 300 (also known as the 1989 ValTrans Proposal) would have taken the 4 busiest bus routes in town and replaced them with 103 miles of elevated trains. The highly ambitious plan, if passed, would have been funded by a half-cent sales tax and taken 30 years to complete (1989-2019).

As you might imagine, the residents of the city did not approve the $8.5 billion project with 63% of voters against ValTrans. Opponents of the project called it a boondoggle and were appalled by the cost. Of course in 1980, the Phoenix area had a population of just 1.6 million people. Could anyone have predicted that in the next 30 years, the population would explode like it did?

Below is a map of the system that would have been built had Proposition 300 passed.

Well, the idea of bringing mass-transit to Phoenix came up again and again, until voters finally approved the idea of the Metro Light Rail in the year 2000. Construction of the system began in 2005 and is currently at 20 miles in length.

Interestingly, the Metro Light Rail follows the original route of the Red Line from the 1989 ValTrans proposal. What we got was a delayed and scaled down version of the original plan laid out in Proposition 300.

Had it passed, ValTrans would be just 5 years away from completion right now. How different would the landscape of our city be with 103 miles of trains and fewer buses? What if we had a real mass-transit system to serve city residents instead of a too-small 20 mile Light Rail? It's interesting to think about.

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