By Corinne Murdock |
Last Tuesday, hundreds of concerned Gilbert citizens enlivened a town council study session with vocal opposition to funding any rail project — not even a survey.
Most of the council expressed confusion about the citizens’ discontent, denying intent on establishing a commuter rail in the town. Councilwoman Kathy Tilque stated repeatedly that there were no plans to bring a commuter rail to Gilbert, and that it probably wouldn’t ever happen. Mayor Brigette Peterson and councilmembers Scott Anderson, Yung Koprowski, and Scott September echoed Tilque’s sentiment throughout the study session, which neared two hours.
“I’m just trying to figure out why we have so many upset people thinking we’re spending taxpayer dollars to bring a commuter rail here,” said Tilque.
Earlier this year, the council proposed a $289,000 consulting contract for a feasibility study on establishing a commuter rail. Council discussion on the subject revealed similar divisions that persisted in last week’s discussions.
When Peterson repeated that Gilbert hasn’t issued plans to build a commuter rail, the citizens shouted “Lies!” Peterson insisted she was telling the truth, further claiming that Gilbert wouldn’t have any say over the establishment of a commuter rail on existing rail lines. Vice Mayor Aimee Yentes rebutted that the town’s actions over the years conflicted Peterson’s claim.
Yentes told AZ Free News that the council’s denial of commuter rail planning was “semantics,” pointing out a February 2018 development agreement, Resolution No. 3955, that Peterson signed onto while a councilwoman. That development agreement described the possibility of a light rail as well as a commuter rail, further conflicting with another one of Peterson’s claims in a July statement that the term “light rail” was used by outside groups and individuals, and that “there are no plans, discussions, or any considerations to construct or extend a light rail” to Gilbert.
The development agreement further noted that the town of Gilbert would be responsible for the cost of future development of a transit station at Cooley Station Village Center. According to a 2018 study on commuter rails conducted by the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG), nearly all commuter rails require a dedicated local sales tax to operate.
During the study session, Yentes asserted that the community’s discontent stems from the council’s unwillingness to take a definitive stance for or against a commuter rail, not a misunderstanding over the town’s role as one of several decision makers on establishing a commuter rail.
“Clearly they’ve been planning for it. They’ve done studies. They’ve dedicated transit stations. They’ve entered into a development agreement that tried to bind us to it. There’s lots of things that Gilbert can do to either plan to do it or be a thorn in their side,” said Yentes.
Yentes proposed an ordinance to prohibit the use of town resources for the furtherance of commuter and light rail development. That would also prohibit additional taxes and application of funds to carry out related studies. It will be voted on during next Tuesday’s town council meeting.
Yentes warned that the city of Phoenix’s commuter and light rails “cannibalized” their transportation budget to the extent that the city couldn’t fix potholes, prompting citizens to pass an additional sales tax in 2017 to cover those expenses.
Tilque called Yentes’ proposed ordinance “dishonest representation” since future councils may overturn it. However, that’s something that new leadership may do at any given time with any ordinance, which Yentes pointed out.
One citizen, Brandon Ryff, told AZ Free News that Tilque’s opposition to the ordinance came across as doubting citizens’ intelligence. Ryff expressed frustration over the conflict between Peterson’s remarks and actions concerning a commuter rail, citing the 2018 development agreement.
Ryff also criticized commuter rails as outdated, “19th-century” technology, pointing out the consistent drop in ridership throughout major cities in Arizona and other states. He contrasted the decline in ridership with the consistent uptick in crime. In Phoenix, crime rates have nearly doubled since 2016; a majority of those crimes were aggravated assault and drug offenses.
“We laugh at it and say that [a commuter rail] looks like a solution looking for a problem,” said Ryff. “For whatever reason and whatever motivation, our town council is defying all logic concerning crime statistics and progress. I can’t help but feel this is related to money from somewhere. Someone is influencing these people to behave this way. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Another citizen, Tyler Farnsworth, remarked to AZ Free News that their opposition was a positive example of engaged citizenry, yet most of the council portrayed it as a negative. Farnsworth commended Yentes’ proposed resolution barring their tax money from funding town rail projects.
“The Mayor and several members of the Council were visibly and vocally annoyed that citizens chose to show up and speak their mind,” said Farnsworth. “We just want to be heard. We want our tax money to be spent wisely. I hope the meeting was a wake up call to this Council. We are watching. Welcome to democracy in action.”
Watch the study session below: