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Tucson ready to opt out of RTA Next unless 'unfair, inequitable' system changes

The city of Tucson is prepared to walk away from a renewal of the Regional Transportation Authority, a major funding source for road improvements throughout Pima County, if its partners in the agreement don’t make serious compromises. Mayor Regina Romero has said she “wants to continue with RTA,” but she and City Council members are asking for fair and equitable representation on the RTA board.

The City Council agreed Tuesday to schedule a special meeting after the Jan. 27 meeting of the RTA board. The city is also maneuvering to meet a Feb. 1 deadline to come up with the language for Prop. 101, which will decide how much Tucson will levy in sales taxes for transportation projects on either the May or November ballot.

Romero, who will attend the RTA meeting as the city's representative, has called the current regional transportation funding system “unfair and inequitable.” Still, she has said repeatedly that she prefers keeping Tucson in the RTA and in an "RTA Next" to meet major goals for the city's transportation infrastructure.

The RTA was a 20-year plan passed by Pima County voters in 2006 that created a fund managed by the Pima Association of Governments. Its board includes representatives of South Tucson, Sahuarita, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Tohono O’odham Nation, Tucson, Oro Valley, Marana, Pima County and the Arizona State Transportation Board. Voters also passed a county-wide half-cent sales tax to pay for RTA projects — including upgraded or installed bikeways, roadways, wildlife crossings, elderly accommodations, bus pullouts and signals at pedestrian crossings, among others.

The RTA was meant as a solution to shortcomings in state and federal transportation funds provided to local governments.

The regional system is in its fourth and final phase of projects, and its citizens advisory committee is tasked with drafting RTA Next, a new plan for continuing the shared transportation fund, which held as much as $160 million in June 2021. The city is coming off a year in which more of its transportation-related improvements were covered by its own budget — more than $14 million in 2021.

Extending the RTA, with changes in its structure or not, will require going back to voters for approval, and each local government agreeing to take part.

Romero and members of the Council have complained about an under-representation of women and Latinos on the citizen advisory committee and about the balance of power on the board. They believe the committee needs to be based on demographics and that the board needs a weighted voting system based on population. City leaders have said they’ll refuse to join an RTA Next and take their tax dollars with them unless they see “commitments.”

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Members of the Pima County Board of Supervisors have mentioned the RTA as another example of the city choosing independence over cooperation with regional partners. Supervisor Steve Christy, the lone Republican on the board, called it part of a “three-pronged attack” that included the city water policy and their opposition to the property taxes to pay for roads as part of the PAYGO plan. The county is now suing the city over its 2020 policy that charges unincorporated Tucson Water customers greater rates.

The City Council has over the last year prioritized using general funds to improve neighborhood roadways, Romero and City Manager Michael Ortega said during Tuesday’s meeting. The city is in a position to commit similar amounts over the next five years, Ortega said, but that alone is “not going to cut it” to carry out the city’s master transportation improvement plan, Move Tucson, which is expected to cost $13 billion overall.

Nearly all seven of the mayor and Council spoke on the topic on Tuesday — South Side Councilman Richard Fimbres stayed silent — with East Side Councilman Paul Cunningham and Midtown Councilman Steve Kozachik agreeing that they needed to send a message to the RTA that they don’t need an RTA Next but it would be nice to have one.

“We need the folks at the RTA to know we’re not going to bluff on this,” Cunningham said. “If we have to go it alone, we’ll go it alone, but we also need them to know that we recognize that we get a way better package if we do this regionwide.”

“Let’s really send a message today that we’re serious about this,” Kozachik said. “We have decisions to make with respect to our own funding for our own road repair.”

The city should expect the RTA board to vote and make real decisions, Kozachik said, instead of “kicking the can down the road.” Specifically, Kozachik wants to see at least five votes from the nine-member RTA board on issues of weighted voting, diversity on the citizens advisory committee and inflation adjustments to project prices set years ago.

“I’d support sticking with the RTA if we can get those kinds of commitments, not just conversation,” he said. “We have to let them know that ‘you guys go ahead and meet on the 27th, but we’re coming in right behind you, and based on what you do, we’re going to act.’”

Romero agreed with all of Kozachik’s points and suggested that City Council have a special meeting on Jan. 31 to make their decisions on the Prop. 101 sales tax and their future with the RTA. There are four rates — a quarter, half, .75 or full-cent tax — that Council can choose from to replace the current half-cent sales tax from the 2017 Prop. 101, which is set to expire at the end of this June. A half-cent sales tax is estimated to raise $75 million a year for transportation funds, Ortega said, and the “one full cent could substitute the funds the RTA provides the city of Tucson, and we could do major projects,” Romero said.

Kozachik also wanted to make it clear “that if we’re not part of RTA Next, city residents are not going to be taxed to fund projects in Sahuarita. Just to make it clear: if we’re out, we’re out. That includes our tax dollars.”

Also pointing to the major contribution that the city of Tucson makes to the RTA, Cunningham said “they need us more than we need them.”

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Tucson “has incredible options,” Mayor Romero said, including getting ready to apply for and receive federal infrastructure dollars from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in November, which she expects to see in the late summer or fall. However, she said that her preference continues to be staying with the RTA as long as they make the changes she and City Council want to see.

“I have said over and over again for one year or more that my preference as a mayor would be to stay as a regional partner in the PAG RTA,” she said. “We don’t necessarily have to continue with an RTA Next, not unless we get answers in terms of an equitable voting system and an answer of how we get (projects funded),” saying it would be “cheating taxpayers” to not get more answers on how RTA projects will be funded, which relates to Kozachik’s point about inflation adjustments.

The “resistance and pushback” from the RTA against how the city of Tucson wants projects done on streets like 1st Ave. and Grant Road have also been frustrating for the mayor and City Council members in their own wards, she said.

“There’s no winning,” she said. “When we’ve been talking for a year and half with this body, there is no winning for the Tucson taxpayers and the mayor and council to sit at a table where we are refused the opportunity to be listened to. We are paying into the system, but we are not being listened to, and that, my friends, is completely unacceptable for the taxpayer of the city of Tucson who is putting their money into a system that is unfair and inequitable.”

The Jan. 27 RTA board meeting will be “pivotal to deciding how Tucson moves forward within our own elections,” she said.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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