Voters approved a region-wide transportation plan 10 years ago that was meant to add lanes to busy streets and improve congestion throughout the metro area. That plan covered 20 years, and was accompanied by a half-cent sales tax to pay for the work.
At the halfway point in the Regional Transportation Authority, Metro Week checks in on the progress.
The RTA was expected to bring in $2.1 billion in its 20 years, and included 35 major road widening projects in Tucson, Pima County, Marana, Sahuarita and Oro Valley. It also included money for new buses, the streetcar line, new sidewalks and upgrades to the traffic signals.
"I think we've done really well," said Marana Mayor Ed Honea. He is chairman of the RTA's board, which comprises a representative from each of the jurisdictions listed above, plus the two tribes and a representative of the state transportation board.
"We're kind of ahead of schedule on many of the projects that we've wanted to move forward, we've used bonding to bring in monies more quickly," Honea said.
The recession helped reduce construction costs, which means the interest on the bonds is cancelled out by those savings, he said.
For some, the conversation has turned to the controversial projects.
The 20-year plan was conceived based on the area's needs two decades ago, or longer. Some of the road work is still as necessary as it was then, but in other areas of town, the needs have changed.
One of those is Broadway Boulevard from Euclid to Country Club. The RTA plan called for widening the road to eight lanes, but residents in the area say demand hasn't grown as fast as expected, so the road does not need to be so big.
The plan now calls for a six-lane road.
"We're open to minor changes, like on the Broadway project, but we are really concerned about timing, and one of the issues now is that project is behind schedule," Honea said. In the original plan, construction was to be complete by the end of 2016.
Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik represents the area of town where the widening is planned. He said it makes no sense to spend $71 million to build "a raceway to a bottleneck."
His characterization of Broadway is that widening the route westbound into downtown just means more cars reach the congestion and bottleneck of the east end of downtown faster.
He's felt the city's planning process is "ignoring the voices of the people who have participated in this process for literally three years." People said they value creating a destination on the roadway and preserving the built environment and the businesses, Kozachik said.
The RTA board recognizes the need to make changes, and typically defers to the jurisdiction that oversees the projects on minor changes, Honea said. In this case, that's the city of Tucson, and the City Council has approved the Broadway plans. Kozachik cast the only dissenting vote on the plans to expand Broadway.
Future of RTA?
At the halfway point of the RTA plan, conversations are underway about what happens once it expires.
The plan was estimated in 2006 $2.1 billion in sales tax revenue. Then the recession hit, and sales tax revenues dropped. Now, Honea says it is likely to bring in $1.75 billion. To make up the difference, the RTA will pull from federal money already designated for roads in the region through the Pima Association of Governments, Honea said.
"We think we'll be able to build all the projects," he said.
And the future of road planning should entail a regional collaboration, he said.
"The RTA has been by far the best mechanism for the community as a whole to collaborate with each other," Honea said. "Major projects benefit everybody, no matter what region they're built in."
Construction Versus Repair?
As it looks to what's next, "the RTA really needs to seriously consider...allocating a portion of the RTA sales tax to road repair," Kozachik said.
It makes no sense, Kozachik said, to keep building roads without putting money into maintaining them.
"That's a big area of contention amongst many of the members of the RTA right now," Honea said.
The legislation that allows a Regional Transportation Authority prioritizes new construction such as widenings, Honea said adding maintenance would likely require legislative change.
The RTA board is talking about several options:
Expanding the plan: increasing the sales tax to 3/4-cent or 1-cent sales tax on every dollar spent, add new projects
Extending the plan: add new projects that are already planned, but are not yet part of the 20-year plan, keep 1/2-cent sales tax.
These conversations are ongoing, no date has been set, no plans are made, he said.