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Phoenix will vote Tuesday on a light rail system expansion. It faces opposition from business owners backed by activists affiliated with the Koch network

For years, Phoenixs public transportation plans have included a network of light rail lines connecting downtown to the suburbs, cutting air pollution and carbon emissions in a city dubbed the least sustainable in the US.

But as the city prepares to vote Tuesday on an expansion of its light rail system into a poorer, and more black and Hispanic, part of the city, the train is facing opposition from a group of business owners who fear they will lose customers. And they are receiving help from someeye-catching backers: activists affiliated with the Koch conservative network.

According to the language of the referendum, which the director of a Koch-funded political organization helped draft, not only will a vote against the expansion result in the cancellation of this particular line. It will also prohibit all future light rail construction in the city.

Obviously were concerned with the impacts of the construction, but Ive never seen this kind of outside group come in and write an initiative, said Kate Gallego, the Phoenix mayor.

Koch brother groups have tried to derail public transit plans in other cities around the country, from Little Rock, Arkansas and central Utah, to Nashville, Tennessee and south-east Michigan. They have frequently called such projects wasteful spending. The Koch organization is also heavily invested in fossil fuels.

Phoenix is the nations fastest-growing city, according to the most recent US Census figures, but its also been named the least sustainable, because of drought, the heat island effect caused by sprawling concrete infrastructure, and continued growth. And a 2018 study found the city is one of the five worst metropolitan areas in the country for air quality, with degraded air quality for nearly one-third of the year.

Light rail systems like Phoenixs offer public transportation options that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The first 20-mile stretch of light rail began operating in 2010, coinciding with a revitalization of the downtown area.

Gallego said she has been a champion of light rail since her time as a city council member: I really want a city that invests in sustainable transportation.

Business and property owners along the planned expansion into south Phoenix criticized the plan. Photograph: Courtesy of Valley Metro

Opposition to the expansion began, however, because it would constrict a main car traffic route.

Business and property owners along the planned expansion into south Phoenix criticized the plan because it would reduce the number of car lanes from four to two along Central Avenue, a major thoroughfare,and because of the effect this might have on businesses along the main roadway.

Mel Martin, who owns Martins Auto Museum as well as several properties and six buildings along the route, helped organize the effort and has put the most money into the campaign, according to campaign finance reports maintained by the city.

We felt like we were getting cheated, Martin said. We went to the city council with a lot of reasons why they should give us four lanes, which is what occurred in another part of the city.

But the council stuck with their original plans. Thats when Martin and others, who dubbed their group Four Lanes or No Train, began considering a ballot measure that would stop the expansion. Its also when Scott Mussi, the executive director of the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, a not-for-profit that has been funded by multiple Koch brother-connected organizations, such as Americans For Prosperity and American Encore, began attending the meetings, Martin said.

As the Phoenix New Times detailed earlier this month after reviewing emails between Mussi and the groups organizers, Mussi became involved in shaping the ballot measure, including the language on preventing any further expansion of the light rail, and organizing the petition-gathering effort required to get the question on the ballot.

Mussi told Martin that no Koch brother money would be put into the effort, Martin said, so he was surprised to see in the latest campaign finance reports that Mussi personally contributed $40,000 to the committee, accounting for a little less than 10% of the total contributions made to the organization.

That was a shock to me, Martin said.

Mussi did not return phone calls or emails requesting comment.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/aug/26/koch-activists-phoenix-ban-light-rail