If there’s one entity that specializes in giving people something they don’t need—or aren’t even asking for—it’s the government. So, naturally, while the country faces sky-high inflation and Arizonans make sacrifices in their family budgets, the Town of Gilbert saw fit to discuss a potential…commuter rail.
That’s right. At the end of April, the Gilbert Town Council announced that it’s considering a $289,000 consulting contract for a feasibility study on establishing a commuter rail. What this would accomplish—and why anyone thinks this would be good for Gilbert—remains a mystery.
Even before COVID, public transit usage has been on the decline. And that’s only worsened since…
On Tuesday, the Gilbert Town Council announced a $289,000 consulting contract for a feasibility study on establishing a commuter rail. The commuter rail, a mode of public transportation at the core of major metropolitan areas like Chicago and New York City, would likely be located somewhere within the Heritage district. The council moved to consider the contract during a later study session.
The proposal comes at a time when transit crime rates have reached an all-time high in areas where they have the most use such as New York City, San Francisco Bay Area, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. Multiple studies link the presence of public transit such as light rail and commuter rail to an increase in crime and decrease in surrounding property values.
Vice Mayor Aimee Yentes asserted that the goal of the study wasn’t to establish feasibility, but rather to whip up something with “pretty pictures” that would distract from the facts behind commuter rail and inspire public support. Yentes accused Washington, D.C. lobbyists of pushing an agenda for financial gain at the loss of taxpayers and locals, mocking President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” campaign slogan as well.
“I think quite frankly we’re taking crazy pills if we think people are going to be excited about commuter rail,” said Yentes. “The complete boondoggle that this will be not just for this community, but for this state. We are literally observing California living this nightmare. I can’t point to a state that Amtrak is not being heavily and deeply subsidized by taxpayers despite 75 percent decline in their ridership. I can’t point to a state where we have a good model that makes any amount of sense for this. We’re going to put the foot on the pedal because we’ve got ‘Build Back Bankruptcy’ dollars that are going to be flooding the jurisdictions?”
Yentes also pointed out that all commuter rails require a local sales tax in addition to all the state subsidies and federal monies they receive. She predicted widespread community backlash.
“I think this is insane,” said Yentes. “I don’t think it’s a matter of timing. There is no good timing for broken 19th-century technology. I think this is a broken model and I think there’s a lot of buyer’s remorse in other states that have gone down this track.”
In addition to commuter rail, the transportation expansion would eventually become transit centers accommodating other types of transit: bus, bicycle, micromobility, and rideshare. Town research explained that such an initiative had been in the works since 1993.
Vice Mayor Aimee Yentes said she has “a lot of problems” with the proposed transit center, specifically the commuter rail, calling it “premature.” Yentes said that the scope of the project for stakeholder involvement wasn’t clear, and that the stakeholders’ work were oriented toward designing and planning rather than community outreach to assess desire and need.
Councilwoman Yung Koprowski insisted that the community at large was aware of the city’s intention to establish a commuter rail based on published documents made available to the community.
Yentes disagreed. She said it was one thing for these initiatives to be laid out in planning documents, but that the reality was the community weren’t involved in them. She said that only an “inner bubble” of the community kept an eye on planning documents.
“I think if I asked 100 of my neighbors if they know a commuter rail is coming to Gilbert, I think approximately zero of those people would be aware,” said Yentes.
Koprowski then clarified that this council decision would be the “first step” to get background and decide whether to move forward with the transit center.
Koprowski owns a transportation planning and civil engineering firm, Y2K Engineering.
Councilman Scott Anderson expressed doubts that the transit center would happen, citing Amtrak’s exclusion of Gilbert as a station location in previous reports and agreeing with Yentes that it was premature. Development Services Director Kyle Mieras revealed that Amtrak recently expressed support for a station location. He added that federal funds would be available to back the project.
“We wanted to show support for this and get ahead so if and when Amtrak or commuter rail does come forward, we’ve at least studied this and in a position where we’re going to come out ahead of it, so we’re skating to where the puck is going not where it’s been,” said Mieras.
Mayor Brigette Peterson added that the Amtrak southwest representative was shocked at Gilbert’s exclusion from viable locations. Peterson divulged that Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said that Gilbert was “way ahead” of their city when it came to establishing commuter rail, noting that the town had two areas open for stations, citing Cooley Station as an example.
“If Amtrak comes knocking with those federal dollars, is Gilbert on board to do that?” asked Peterson.
Koprowski noted that the feasibility study would offer some conclusion as to whether commuter rail was feasible and, if not, how the two potential areas could be repurposed. Yentes challenged the council to define its standard of feasibility.
According to Mayor Brigette Peterson, the Gilbert Town Council should reconsider offering $75,000 of taxpayer money annually for employee sex changes. The motion failed in a council meeting last week. After the vote, Peterson indicated that the sex change surgery – referred to as ‘gender-affirming surgery’ – would return to committee for review in the future.
Currently, the town benefits cover therapy and hormone treatments.
Councilmember Aimee Yentes spoke up first on the issue. She said she supported the 3 percent premium increases, but not the sex change surgery.
“I think those are policies that deviate from other positions we’ve taken as a community that delve more into social policy rather than strictly providing medical[ly] necessary benefits to our employees,” said Yentes.
Vice Mayor Yung Koprowski only spoke up to mention she’d vote for adding sex change surgery coverage only to align with Affordable Care Act (ACA) industry standard.
Councilmember Scott September said he concurred with Yentes’ assessment.
The question of necessity for such coverage came into play. Councilmember Laurin Hendrix asked the human resources representative, Deputy Chief People Officer Kristen Drew, if any applicants within the past 5 years had refused to apply for or accept employment because the town didn’t offer sex change surgery coverage.
Drew said there hadn’t been any such applicants.
Despite this history, the mayor claimed that not offering this surgery would be a deal breaker for employees in the future. She also urged the council to be more open-minded, to set aside their own values.
“At some point, it might become an issue and we’ll show that this community is forward-thinking, and there are times that we need to make the tough decisions that may not always align with our own thought process when it comes to our personal choices or our political choices or our religious choices, even but we put Gilbert in a position that provides for whatever the future may hold[,]” said Peterson. “I’m going to encourage our council members to be open-minded in this benefit and look to this community moving forward where we can be strong and handle situations like this that come forward and we’re faced with.”
In an interview with AZ Free News, Hendrix raised several points of contention about the added coverage and the mayor’s perspective. He stated that a sex change surgery is cosmetic – not a true health need.
“I see health insurance for health needs. And I don’t see this as a health need. It’s a cosmetic surgery by choice. I don’t see any reason that taxpayers should have to pay for that,” said Hendrix. “They were comparing it to autism syndrome at the meeting. You don’t wake up in the morning and think [you have autism]. That’s not something where you have a choice. The two are not similar.”
Hendrix said he doesn’t have an issue with people having the surgery. Rather, Hendrix said he doesn’t want taxpayers to have to foot the bill for it.
Further, Hendrix assessed that this benefit could be an incentive for people to take an underemployed job just for the surgery – and then leave after they got it.
It was Peterson’s request to council before the vote that stuck out to Hendrix the most.
“The mayor’s comments at the end were shocking. We have to ‘get past’ our moral values, our standards? But what else would I base my vote on, if I’m going to put aside my family values, my moral values, religious values, or personal standards? What’s my vote based on? What’s left? I gotta base my vote on something,” said Hendrix. “I hope she bases her vote on something other than who paid into her campaign.”
Councilmembers voted unanimously for the 3 percent premium increases, but the motion to add sex change surgery coverage failed 4-3. Yentes, September, Hendrix, and Scott Anderson voted against the measure. The Vice Mayor, Mayor, and Councilmember Kathy Tilque voted for it.