Potholes, rutting, depressions, raveling, wash-boarding and all manner of cracking and deterioration line Tucson streets making the city a textbook for asphalt management.
Despite an annual budget of more than $20 million for street maintenance and repairs, more than 25 percent of major roadways and as much as 55 percent of residential streets are either failed or in poor condition, according to the city’s Department of Transportation.
Transportation officials say it would cost at least $20 million a year for 10 years to bring arterial and collector streets and intersections up to excellent condition. Add another $64 million per year over a decade to bring residential streets to the same level and $20 million each subsequent year to maintain all streets at that level.
The decade-long undertaking would cost as much as $850 million.
How did things get to this point?
The favorite target of local elected officials has been the state Legislature, which they blame for sweeping money from special funds under its jurisdiction to fix the state’s own budget shortfalls. When it comes to roads they cite the loss of Highway User Revenue Funds (HURF), which primarily come from gas taxes.
“In order to balance the state budget, these funds have been swept,” said Tucson City Councilwoman Karen Uhlich. “The sweep of state funds of this type would typically have gone to road repair.”
Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild echoes the claim.
“They have defined road repair as funding the Motor Vehicle Division and public safety,” Rothschild told a group of residents at a town hall event this month at the Ward 6 city council office. He was referring to the Legislature’s decision last year to pour more HURF money into the Department of Public Safety.
Although “sweeps” has become the prevailing pejorative in recent years, a readjustment in the state’s funding formula more accurately describes what has happened.
For example, during the 2006 fiscal year the state allocated nearly $70 million to the state Department of Public Safety from HURF funds. The following year, the Legislature changed the formula and the DPS allocation fell by almost $54 million.
When the DPS allocation declined, the portion to cities, towns and counties increased by a nearly equal amount — $52 million.
By fiscal 2009, the state altered the formula once again, boosting the HURF contribution to public safety from $13 million to nearly $87 million.
At the same time, city and county shares of the HURF pie shrunk by $78 million. The legislature has maintained the higher funding level for public safety since 2009.
Local HURF allocations reflect those changes, with the city reaching a high-water mark of $50 million in fiscal 2006 and $49 million the following year.
In subsequent years the funding has fallen, as Tucson received $43 million in fiscal 2011, the same level of funding as 2002.
But less than half of that money goes directly into streets maintenance. The remainder of HURF money gets dispersed throughout the city Transportation Department’s budget, to the non-departmental budget, paying for salaries and debt on previous roadway construction projects.
For the current budget year, the city Department of Transportation’s streets maintenance sector has a $21 million budget, almost all of which comes from the HURF fund.
In addition to repairing roadway surfaces, the sector also maintains the city’s median islands, drainage ways, traffic lights, street signs, roadway lighting and street striping.
More than $11 million of the streets maintenance budget goes toward salaries and benefits.
The condition of Tucson’s streets likely isn’t a phenomenon born of changes in the state’s funding formula alone.
City Councilman Steve Kozachik says much of the blame falls on City Hall rather than the state Capitol.
“The city is absolutely culpable for the condition of the roads because we’ve let them go to hell,” Kozachik said, saying the city has for years not placed adequate emphasis on maintenance to prevent roads from falling into the state of disrepair that exists today.
Transportation officials agree that roads maintenance has not been emphasized in the past.
“There’s never really been a dedicated source of O and M (operations and maintenance) funding,” said Tony Paez, interim director of city transportation.
Paez said in the past the department was able to maintain a patchwork of repairs with the money it got, but the lower state funding levels have made that impossible now.
Deficient funding has been evident for years, even at times when the city received record-levels of funding from the state, according to the city’s own financial plans.
The city’s five-year capital improvement plan from 2006 identified $3 billion worth of needed roadway improvements.
“This large backlog is the result of incomplete infrastructure — minimal sidewalks, street lighting, and inadequate draining — that is the legacy of not imposing development standards, a lack of planning, and a continuous deferral of annual maintenance,” according to the section on unmet capital needs in the 2006 capital improvement plan.
Uhlich agreed that the changes in state funding alone can’t take all the blame for the city’s deteriorating streets.
“Even if the state hadn’t swept the funds, we would probably be having this conversation,” she said.
Uhlich suggested the council might need to reevaluate spending priorities in the coming budget discussions for fiscal 2013 to reflect priority on “core service” areas.
For example, the city puts little from the general fund into the transportation department. The general fund is the portion of the budget used to fund departments like police, fire and others that don’t generate revenue of have alternative sources of income.
In the case of streets maintenance, the general fund makes up just one percent of the $21 million budget.
By contrast, the general fund contribution to the Sun Tran bus system has grown from nearly $16 million in fiscal 2001 to potentially more than $40 million proposed for next year.
Uhlich said she and other council members would try to keep the subsidy to Sun Tran at a constant while working to find solutions to the streets maintenance issue.
Contact reporter Patrick McNamara at email@example.com or (520) 295-4259.