An ordinance that would have prohibited Gilbert from participating and spending any resources for passenger rail was derailed last week.
Council newcomers Jim Torgeson, Bobbi Buchli and Chuck Bongiovanni wanted to resurrect the ordinance opposing light rail and commuter rail for the Feb. 21 meeting after it was tabled last fall. However, they failed to muster the necessary votes to pass the measure, which failed 4-3 with their colleagues saying it tied the town’s hands for future economic opportunities.
“We must vote ‘yes,’” Torgeson said. “I think that in order to send the proper message to this town, to the people who count on their safety, that counts on the character of this town that we need to give them this assurance and if we don’t, I think we are disingenuous in representing them.”
Although light rail is off the table for Gilbert, that’s not the case for commuter rail.
Two years ago, Amtrak announced a 15-year plan to connect up to 160 communities in over 25 states, including providing train trips between Buckeye and Tucson using existing freight tracks.. Gilbert has no say as to where the federally chartered corporation decides to place its commuter-rail stops.
According to Amtrak, 16 Arizona municipalities have indicated support of its vision, including Gilbert, Chandler, Queen Creek and Phoenix. The proposed stations so far included Queen Creek, Tempe, downtown Phoenix and Buckeye, Amtrak said.
Buchli said she campaigned against it for nine months.
“I do not think that Gilbert is a fit for commuter rail or light rail,” she said. “Even if we’ve been told that commuter rail is not coming, we need to vote ‘yes’ on this and make sure that if somehow it does get here in the future for us, for our children, for whoever that no town money, no town funds will be spent on commuter rail.”
Bongiovanni said he wanted to make it clear that if the ordinance was to fail, it didn’t mean that “we are putting in light rail or commuter rail.”
“Win or lose, I just want you to know your voice was heard and it isn’t over,” he said.
Councilman Scott Anderson questioned if what they were considering was good policy “if we let that train go through the town with no opportunity to gain economic development from it. I’m confused whether or not at this point I would support totally banning any opportunity to at least locate a station in the town if that happens in the future.”
Anderson also raised the concern that the ordinance would affect the Town’s decades-old developer agreement to build a transit center in the Cooley Station master-planned community.
“The transit center in Cooley Station is intended for buses, scooters, for all sorts of transportation, not just rail and that developer is depending on that,” Anderson said.
Torgeson pointed out that the ordinance didn’t say there can’t be a transportation center but just no passenger rail can go to it.
Under the proposed ordinance, the town would have been forbidden from using resources for stations, operation centers, office buildings and parking facilitate relating to or supporting commuter rail and light rail.
Torgeson called commuter rail outdated technology that “hasn’t been proven to be positive.”
“It does nothing but lose taxpayers’ dollars,” he said. “There isn’t a single place in the country where it breaks even.”
Councilwoman Yung Koprowski, a transportation engineer, called the ordinance short-sighted and that it would prevent the town from having a seat at the table should commuter rail come to fruition.
“The ordinance as written is too strict in its terminology,” she said. “Because it says that no resources, including staff time could be spent on this topic at all. A big part of the leadership and why we sit up here as a representative body is to plan for our future residents. We can’t plan in a vacuum or without the full spectrum of information.”
She said that public engagement occurs during these planning processes and studies and to cut off the discussion about future needs shortchanged residents and voters.
“The future requires options,” Koprowski said. “We may not need or want passenger rail today or even in the future but to completely remove alternative transportation options from out future and to not be able to even talk to stakeholders about what may come up in the future, it just limits the potential for Gilbert.”
Six residents spoke in favor of the ban, including former Councilwoman Aimee Yentes, who spearheaded the ordinance while in office. Two residents submitted comment cards in support.
Yentes said the town needs to be proactive and pass the ban.
She said the powers that be and the jurisdictions involved in making these decisions absolutely are putting together the pieces for the commuter line from Phoenix to Tucson through Gilbert and Queen Creek. And, she said the governor’s proposed budget included $7 million for it, just enough money to throw at consultants.
She also said that the 2008 developer agreement didn’t obligate the town to build the transit facility.
Resident Aaron Accurso encouraged passage of the ordinance without any changes.
“When it was discussed last fall, there was an attempt to amend it and water it down,” Accurso said.
“You might be concerned about contracts that the town has already signed onto with regards to possible commuter rail stations, transit stations,” Accurso said. “I believe that the cost of breaking those contracts would be much less than the cost of upkeep of those potential facilities in the long haul. We don’t want commuter rail, light rail or any of these types of transit stations in the Town of Gilbert and I think I’m speaking for quite a majority of our town residents.”
Mayor Brigette Peterson said she was willing to continue the issue and bring back a revised version that all her colleagues could support.
“No matter what we restrict here in the Town of Gilbert, Amtrak could use the rail that comes through the middle of Gilbert to put a passenger rail on that track and run that train from Buckeye to Tucson and back again every single day,” Peterson said. “So this ordinance won’t stop any of that. I’m afraid if we pass something, we’re going to work ourselves into a corner.”
She echoed Koprowski’s concern that if commuter rail does come through Gilbert, the ordinance would prevent the town talking with Amtrak and from planning for its impact.
The council finally voted after Bongiovanni called for the vote twice. Those who voted against the ordinance were Peterson, Koprowski, Anderson and Vice Mayor Kathy Tilque, who did not comment on the issue.
“I’m disappointed we took it to a vote,” Peterson commented afterwards. “We can work on an alternative and bring it back so that we are more clear and we don’t hinder business for the future for the Town of Gilbert.”
A day after the meeting, Torgeson said he’s already working on new proposed ordinances for light rail and for commuter rail that he hoped to have them on the council’s March 7 agenda.