Traffic jam

In the latter half of 2020, Tucson Young Professionals surveyed its members to determine the 2021 advocacy priority areas. Of the 20+ priorities, transportation infrastructure came back in the top three. If you live and work in the region, this probably comes as no surprise—grievances over transportation are an evergreen topic of conversation in Tucson, regardless of age. To better understand this issue, members of TYP’s advocacy team sought the insight of the region’s local government administrators.

From our listening tour, we learned that local governments in Southern Arizona are looking for greater connectivity, though connectivity needs vary by jurisdiction. Suburban municipalities seek greater connectivity to Tucson’s urban core; the City of Tucson is looking to improve access to jobs and services for its residents through multimodal transit; Pima County is grappling with how to keep pace with regional growth and population movement outside of municipalities; and all are wrestling with issues around access to high-speed internet. 

The greater issue at hand is that transportation and infrastructure are complex and expensive, and most community discussions miss important components in these conversations. For decades the bond committees, political campaigns, and any other funding debates have myopically prioritized concerns such as street preservation and road widening. Tucson as a large metropolitan area, however, has many other considerations that local governments are already weighing beyond road repairs.

To start, local governments spend hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure every year, yet across Pima County there is a transportation infrastructure deficit of $1.5 billion in backlogged maintenance for street and road repair and new construction. This deficit doesn’t take into account the multimodal transportation needs within the City of Tucson for those who do not have a car, and instead walk or bike, or utilize public transportation. For Tucsonans without a car, the current public transportation offerings include a bus system that can take 45 minutes to go 10 miles or a streetcar that covers a total of four and a half miles between Downtown Tucson and the University of Arizona, or biking on roads without safety infrastructure. With more than a million people in the region and more growth expected, it’s critical that new investments are made. Here are our suggestions. 

Think regionally. In a region where half the population (500,000 people) lives outside of Tucson’s city limits, it’s no favor to Tucsonans to overlook the infrastructure priorities of any of the municipalities in the region. Commuting between home and work and shopping, recreation, etc. in different cities/towns is commonplace, necessitating efficient transportation options between the jurisdictions. With the vast majority of residential growth in Tucson’s surrounding suburbs, particularly Marana and Sahuarita, a more robust transit system along with additional investments in new and existing infrastructure are necessary to connect residents to jobs ensure that interregional travel is both accessible and efficient.

The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) is one tool in Southern Arizona that could be leveraged to address regional connectivity and transit needs, but this requires local jurisdictions to come together and consider regional necessities, rather than using the agency as an auxiliary to their own transportation departments.

The region’s economy cannot be captured through the boundaries of any one jurisdiction, and leadership from local government and businesses need to consider this.

Futureproof. The kind of long-term transportation planning that’s taking place now throughout the region is encouraging. As young professionals, we’re invested in what the region will look like in the coming decades and are eager to see some of the planning that’s currently taking place eventually be realized. 

This also means investing in smart transportation technologies. The City of Tucson, for example, is looking into smart traffic signals to help with traffic flow and efficiency, one of many of the technologies available to improve travel. Similarly, the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) which provides input and assistance in the development of the RTA Next plan, has recently been presented with a variety of possibilities for what the future of transportation may look like. Widening existing roads shouldn’t be the only focus for traffic management, and in fact is counterproductive to the eventual implementation of some of these technologies. Autonomous vehicles, for example, will allow for roads to have narrower—and therefore fewer—lanes which could provide more space for cyclists and pedestrians. Leveraging technology while with planning for the future transportation needs of the community (as much as is reasonably possible) are key to ensuring that the region continues to thrive in the coming decades.

Expand the definition of infrastructure. An often-overlooked element in the infrastructure discussion is broadband and the laying of fiberoptic cable. Among the many challenges wrought by COVID-19, we’ve seen clearly the need for reliable internet access across the community. It has become vital to ensuring quality education, healthcare, employment opportunities and overall quality of life. As internet technology continues to advance, fiber internet options will begin to replace the existing broadband options. In order to keep pace with population growth and offer residents and employers the best options in internet coverage, we need to have fiber in the ground. Doing this is expensive and difficult for private companies as it entails major construction and an often drawn-out permitting process. It would behoove us to engage in public-private partnerships in the near-term and work with private companies to lay the cable while roadways are already under construction to avoid delaying access to this important tool. Additionally, we need to start to reconceptualize internet as a public utility, which is regulated and delivered with more equity and availability like gas, electric, and water.

The End of It. Transportation is complicated and expensive, and making changes to the existing system will take a significant amount of planning and resources. We understand that a discussion about transportation and infrastructure doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Local management of financial resources (like HURF, gas tax dollars and state-shared revenue, or debt service on past bonds) is a necessary concern, as is the blinding lack of vision at the state level exhibited in the growing toll of deferred infrastructural maintenance.

As we move forward to improve the region’s transportation options (like RTA renewal), critical investments cannot only take into account backlogs in maintenance and road repair. They must also consider additional modes of transportation, more efficient public transit systems and access to high-speed internet, among other things. We must leverage new technologies and existing resources in a concerted effort towards this end for a better community for all of us.  

 

John Winchester is Vice-Chair of the Advocacy Team for TYP, whose goal is to represent and elevate the voices of young professionals in the Tucson and Southern Arizona. Winchester is also the Executive Director of the Northwest YMCA.