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Tucson to ask voters for half-cent sales tax increase to fund fire, cops and roads

Tucson and Arizona have taken steps over the past two days to address road, public safety and other infrastructure needs, although voters and lawmakers will have to approve the details.

The Tucson City Council voted unanimously Tuesday evening to ask voters at a May 16 special election to approve a half-cent sales tax to buy new fire and police vehicles and other equipment and to fix hundreds of miles of roads. It would generate about $50 million per year.

And the state Surface Transportation Funding Task Force wrapped up efforts on Wednesday to advise the Legislature how to better finance the highway patrol 's annual $130 million budget and to pay for an estimated $60 million in needed road and bridge repairs throughout Arizona

Tucson's proposed sales tax increase

If voters approve Tucson's the half-cent bump in the city's sales tax, 60 percent would be used to buy vehicles and equipment for the fire and police departments and the rest would be used to repair major and residential streets. The public-safety portion would be split almost evenly between police and fire.

"The bulk of it is going to vehicles, both police and fire," said Tucson Councilman Steve Kozachik. "About 65 percent of our police vehicles are at or beyond their useful life. If you see a paramedic truck going by you, the chances are about 85 percent that the thing has about 150,000 miles. So the needs are obviously legit."

Assuming the measure is approved, Kozachik said the city would be able to order the vehicles in 2017 but that it would take about three years to actually obtain these increasingly complex vehicles.

Prices range from about $400,000 for paramedic trucks to $1.5 million for ladder fire trucks. Cop cars cost $50,000 to $60,000, including electronics.

Some of the money also would be used to upgrade fire stations and to buy equipment such as police vests, body armor, body cameras and software to support them.

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For the 40 percent that would be used for roads, about 60 percent would be used for major arterials, those major streets such as Grant Road, Speedway and Broadway that appear every mile.

And the rest would be used for collector and residential streets. Collectors are streets that appear at half-mile intervals,  such as Plumer Ave., between Tucson Boulevard and Country Club Road.

The specific streets that would be fixed will be listed on the ballot and a citizen's advisory committee would be asked to recommend further details, such as what streets should be fixed first, Kozachik said.

"Every meeting I go to, everywhere I go, I hear 'fix the roads. Fix the roads',"  Kozachik said.

The Council agreed that the sales tax would only last for five years, in hopes that the Regional Transportation Authority in that time will also adopt a plan to maintain streets throughout Pima County. The RTA is halfway through a 20-year, $2.1 billion program to undertake major road projects but is not allowed by law to maintain streets.

The RTA is financed by a half-cent sales tax paid throughout Pima County but that money can only be used to build new roads already approved by voters. The state Legislature would have to pass a law to enable it to pass an additional half-cent sales tax to pay for road maintenance.

Tucson voters in 2012 also approved a five-year street maintenance program that is funded by property taxes. Kozachik and others prefer a sales tax because that means improvements are financed not just by residents but anyone who shops in the city. The proposed sales tax increase would bump up the city's sales tax to 2.5 from 2 cents.

Suggestions for Arizona

Lawmakers earlier this year created an Arizona Surface Transportation Funding Task Force to look at options for transportation funding to provide guidance for the 2017 Legislature. The state now relies heavily on gas taxes, even for the state highway patrol.

The committee is expected to issue its final report by Dec. 31, but won't make specific recommendations, said Jim Rounds, a Tempe economist who served as committee vice chairman. In the three months the committee met and took testimony, it didn't have enough time to thoroughly analyze funding options, he said.

To raise more revenues for street, bridge and highway improvements and public safety, the committee will probably suggest funding options such as raising the 18-cent-a-gallon state gas tax by five cents, increasing vehicle license taxes by 10 percent, increasing auto registration or title fees each by $10 and other charges.

One matter the committee has discussed – but not yet answered — is how to get more money from electric cars that don't pay gas taxes but still cause wear and tear on roadways.

"This is one stepping stone out of many. The committee didn't have time to research everything in depth," Rounds said.

But something needs to be done to fix crumbling roads around the state, he said.

"Eventually, if left to waste, it (deteriorating infrastructure) will impact economic development and not in the positive," he said.

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1 comment on this story

1
20 comments
Dec 28, 2016, 4:36 pm
-0 +1

Something does need to be done.

Uncouple the money needed to fix the roads from the brand-new cars TPD and TFD want. 

We need to fix the roads.

TPD can take their fancy new motorcycles and their fancy cars and keep ignoring the copper theft and graffiti and real crime while they focus on harassing Tucson drivers… and that does not make them deservant of anything.

A new tax that gives 60% to these jokers is as irresponsible and absurd as the City Council usually does. 

In a word that isn’t topsy-turvy the roads would get 100% and if TPD wants more toys then can apply for their own tax.  I’ll be happy to look at that separately… as it should be.

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Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.com

Workers repave part of Grant Road in Midtown in April 2015.