To state the obvious, the roads in Tucson, and in many of the surrounding jurisdictions as well as unincorporated Pima County, are horribly in need of significant reconstruction. The problem is far beyond potholes.
The taxpayers of the region should not be asked to dip further into their incomes to pay for road repair until elected officials and public servants have exhausted every other option available.
One option that exists contains the seed-bed of a very large pool of money, and that exists in the form of an existing tax; the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) sales tax.
In 2006, the voters were asked to approve a half-cent sales tax, the use of which was to go into expanding road capacity in the region. The 20-year anticipated revenue stream from the tax was estimated at being $2 billion. The projects shown on the ballot included something for everybody - and so it passed.
That’s how we do bond elections around here. Everyone sees some ornaments on the Christmas Tree they like, so they buy the whole deal.
Fast forward to today’s reality. The RTA continues moving ahead, as they were told to do by the voters, and starting projects that will expand our road capacity. And while that is occurring, our existing transit infrastructure has deteriorated to the point that it is a safety issue throughout the community. It is also a disincentive to businesses thinking of relocating to our area.
And some of the projects are based on flawed traffic projections, and if designed as per plans will eliminate millions of dollars worth of sales and property tax base in the form of existing businesses along corridors that do not need to be expanded to the extent the voters were told would be the case.
For example, based on 1987 traffic studies, voters were told that by 2030, Broadway would need to be 150 feet wide to accommodate traffic projections. The RTA has now found those projections were invalid.
The Broadway project has $42 million RTA money as a funding base. The total project cost is over $71 million. The difference was to be made up by bond money from Pima County but that pool has dried up, so the City of Tucson is on the hook for the delta if the project goes forward as planned.
Never mind that it will eliminate 115 historic structures and small businesses that form the tax base for our local government general fund. Never mind that we’re spending millions of dollars for a project to which multiple neighborhood associations and business owners have taken exception. And never mind that in doing the work, we’re encouraging traffic density along that arterial, knowing the volumes do not exist in reality, and knowing that when the Broadway traffic passes into downtown, it will pinch into a single lane. Gridlock.
The RTA correctly says its list of projects was “voter approved.” As economic, traffic and road conditions change, I am advocating that we hear the voice of the people again in two specific areas:
• First, do a project by project reanalysis to see if the underlying bases on which they were sold to the public are valid. If not, down-scope the projects and save millions of dollars in both project costs and saving businesses along the corridors.
• Second, ask the voters in each jurisdiction if they’d approve setting aside 20 percent of their RTA tax dollars and earmark it for road reconstruction in their jurisdiction. On a population basis, for the City of Tucson that would equate to over $200 million over the 20-year life of the RTA. Then let’s have a community wide conversation that identifies how we re-scope and possibly put on hold projects so we can afford that reallocation of funds.
What I am proposing is offering the taxpayers a dedicated funding source that already exists and earmark it to road repair. The trade off is forcing the RTA into a modern day community discussion about what the “voters approved” back in 2006.
Before we ask the taxpayers to take on more debt, let’s ask if they’d like to reallocate some existing debt to fixing our roadways. Getting to that point will require the RTA board to present an idea such as this to the county Board of Supervisors. It might require tweaking a State statute. But if the people speak out, and if there is that level of leadership at the Board of Supervisors and in Phoenix, the question can still appear on the ballot this fall.
Contact Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik, who represents mid-town Ward 6, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (520) 791-4601.