Phoenix voters by a wide margin were turning down a measure that would limit the future of light rail in the nation’s fifth largest city, early returns from a special election showed Tuesday.
Nearly two-thirds of early, unofficial ballots counted so far show voters speaking out for mass transit by rejecting the measure known as Proposition 105, which aims to halt all planned light rail expansion inside city limits.
The results so far are mostly from mail-in ballots and represent about 22.5% of the city’s 764,653 registered voters. More returns were expected later in the evening.
Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego celebrated the early returns showing a margin of nearly 2-1 against the measure.
“Light rail expansion is not stopping — not today, not tomorrow,” Gallego said. “This campaign was never about one track of rail. It was about equity for our entire city and voters delivered on that promise.”
Approval of Proposition 105 would immediately stop a planned 5.5-mile (8.85-kilometer) extension of the rail into the working-class Hispanic and African American communities of south Phoenix, home to numerous auto repair shops and Mexican markets.
It also would stop future extensions designed to link far-flung areas around the Valley of the Sun, including one planned to the state Capitol and another to far western suburbs, home to many people who commute to the city’s center for jobs and school.
“We’re on pins and needles because we have no idea what the final results will show,” said Susan Gudino, who was gathering at a Mexican restaurant to await early returns with other backers of the “Yes on 105” effort launched by a group called Building a Better Phoenix.
Gudino, 42, said a light rail extension would harm small businesses and change the character of south Phoenix, where she has lived most of her life. “It really would change everything,” she said.
Tony Cani, a spokesman for the “No on 105” campaign, said keeping the door open to future expansion of light rail “is really about giving people the choice about where they can go to work and to school. We think mass transit can elevate people’s lives.”
With a population of 1.6 million people, Phoenix is among other large cities in the U.S. with some kind of rail, but its system is modest compared with others, including New York City subways, Washington’s metro, Chicago’s L and San Francisco’s BART.
Boston, Atlanta and Philadelphia also have some kind of rail system, and even the largely car-dependent Los Angeles area since 1990 has had Metro Rail, which has an average weekday ridership of nearly 350,000 people.
Now stretching more than 26.3 miles (42.3 kilometers), construction of Phoenix’s Valley Metro system began in March 2005 and service was launched in December 2008. The agency says the system had about 15.7 million riders in 2018, with an estimated weekday ridership of nearly 48,000.
Before three days of in-person voting ending on Tuesday, mail-in ballots had already pushed overall turnout for the 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 171,750 completed mail-in ballots by Monday, said spokesman Matthew Hamada. That’s about 31.2 percent of the 549,128 early ballots sent to voters and 22.4 percent of all the city’s registered voters.
Phoenix voters tend to vote early by mail, with between 88% and 97% of all ballots in the last three citywide elections cast by early ballot.
A second measure, Proposition 106, aims to limit the city’s spending until its pension debt is significantly reduced.
Along with Building a Better Phoenix, the anti-rail Proposition 105 is backed by 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.
Other opponents include the Greater Phoenix and Arizona Hispanic chambers of commerce, firefighters, unions and Arizona AARP.
Those groups also oppose Proposition 106, saying it could slash funding for libraries and other city services.