Farhad Moghimi is executive director of the Regional Transportation Authority. In 2006, voters approved a 20-year transportation plan funded with a half-cent sales tax. RTA officials are already launching a public outreach program to determine what kinds of transportation projects should be included in an extension of the RTA, which will have to be approved by voters.
The RTA doesn’t expire until 2026 but you’ve already reaching out to the public to see what they might want as part of an extension. Why are you getting such an early start?
The main reason is to make sure we have an extensive public involvement process. We want to make sure we give ourselves plenty of time to get input from the public, and be able to use that input, integrated into the Citizens Advisory Committees’ effort. Then they have plenty of time and they can be very collaborative and adjust the process as needed. We didn’t want to rush anybody.
You’ve completed more than 850 projects over the last 13 years. What would you consider to be the big successes of the RTA since voters approved to have sent sales tax back in 2006?
We spent nearly 25 percent of the RTA plan on improving transit services that would be extending hours during work days and also providing new hours during weekends. That, I believe, was a significant improvement in our transit system, providing access and opportunity for people to get to jobs when previously they were limited from getting to jobs. In addition to that, when we provide transit, we also provide services that are for the American Disability Act. If we have a transit route, we have to make sure that we provide an alternative for an ADA eligible individual. In addition to transit, we’ve done a lot of safety improvements. As you can imagine, as the community’s growing, safety is another concern. We’ve been able to install over 80 pedestrian safety crossings that are called the HAWK Crossings. Those are typically at the mid-block. Anytime there is a study done before and after installation of a HAWK, we’ve seen significant improvements and safety and compliance with the signal that those locations. Then there’s what I personally believe is enhancing economic development by providing better access, better connectivity and mobility across many different areas. For example, you have the Twin Peaks traffic interchange on I-10 that provided an additional access point from I-10 to our residents in the Marana area. Another good example that I can name is the Houghton corridor, which is on the far east side of town, but it’s been very needed to provide those improvements. As a result, we’re seeing some economic development opportunities and some jobs that are created as these corridors are being developed.
What are some of the big projects the RTA will be funding in 2020?
In 2020, we have the Broadway project, which is from Euclid to Country Club that is funded for construction. We have the next phase of Grant Road funded for design and construction. As you know, Grant was broken up to certain phases. Those are all being funded for completion. We have the Downtown Links project. We hope to take that to construction next year as well.
The RTA also funded the downtown modern streetcar along with a major federal grant, and you still provide a subsidy to help with the operations there. Do you think the streetcar has been a success?
Oh yes, definitely. So again, our definition of how these transit-oriented developments are coming along is part of that story of the success for the entire region. As you can imagine, the streetcar is this fixed-transit system that demonstrates the commitment of the region to assist them. Typically the private investments and the land use opportunities follow those transportation-oriented developments. So yes, I believe it has been a success.
The Great Recession meant the RTA collected less than revenue than the original projections. Will all the projects that voters approved to be completed?
Yes. On the revenue collection side, as you mentioned, because of the recession, the revenues that were projected to come in were less than what was projected by the Regional Transportation Authority Board as well as the Regional Council of Pima Association of Governments. We’re able to solve that by committing other non-RTA regional funds to completing RTA projects, which is part of their process to identify what are the priorities to the region and fund those projects. In this case it was relatively easy to decide what the priorities are because the voters had already voted for those projects.
You mentioned earlier that RTA is more than just roads. There’s been the transit but also money spent on the sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, bike paths, wildlife crossings and things of that nature. You see those projects as being pretty important.
Definitely, definitely. And again, that it’s not just RTA as an organization. It was citizens group back in 2004, 2005 that developed the plan. The plan had extensive public input, public feedback. We had over 200 meetings and the voters ultimately in 2006 approved the plans. We believe that is what the voters wanted and that’s what the public is willing to support. That’s why it’s important to us. We’re delivering exactly what they voted for.
Some folks say that a gas tax would be a better funding source than a sales tax, but the state gas tax hasn’t been increased since it was created in the early 1990s. Can you talk a little bit about how gas tax revenues have been affected by inflation and the increase in alternatively fueled vehicles?
There’s no debate that the formula using gas tax is something that really needs to be revisited and hopefully changed in the future. But the impact of a gas not keeping up with demand is mostly because of the inflation costs. So the cost of doing business back in 1991, versus doing business in 2020, I think that’s where we see that the major impact. So if the gas tax was indexed to keep up with inflation, it wouldn’t be as much of an issue. Obviously, as you mentioned, alternative vehicles are something that needs to be considered and alternative vehicles will have to pay their share as well. Historically, I think the use of the mileage per person has actually increased so we haven’t seen a decrease in revenues, but we’ve just lost the purchasing power of that revenue.
Some have argued that if the voters approve a new RTA, a portion of the fund should be set aside for repair and maintenance of roads. What do you think?
That’s yet to be seen as we are going through that process. Currently we have a citizens’ committee that’s going to look at the input that was provided by the public and they are going to continue to have those discussions during the development of the next plan and hopefully we’ll be able to answer that question based on what the public is willing to support.