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Pima County supervisors worried about Tucson's RTA stance

Pima County leaders are worried that their relationship with the city of Tucson is getting worse as city officials threaten to leave the Regional Transportation Authority, which funds major projects for both governments. City and county representatives will meet with the rest of the RTA's board on Thursday, with decisions on changes the city wants to make to the RTA on the agenda.

Mayor Regina Romero and the Tucson City Council have said that they want a weighted voting system on the board, to have more say on issues like the cost of road projects and deciding when they’re scheduled. As it is, the RTA is “unfair and inequitable,” Romero said during a Jan. 11 Council meeting.

The RTA is controlled by its board, including one official from each of the local governments which have road projects funded by state-collected sales tax revenue, which is funneled through the agency. RTA projects take place throughout the Tucson metro area, with its membership made up of South Tucson, Oro Valley, Marana, Sahuarita, Tohono O’odham Nation, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, the city of Tucson, Pima County and the Arizona Department of Transportation.

Since 2006, the RTA has completed projects like road widenings, hundreds of safety enhancements including creating bus pullouts lanes and adding signs and signals to intersections, dozens of ADA improvements, hundreds of bike lanes, paved shoulders, sidewalks and multi-use paths, wildlife crossings and the Sun Link streetcar and its maintenance facility, according to an RTA status report.

But city officials have complained that projects within Tucson city limits have been left until the end of the current 20-year slate of projects, and that costs have gone up substantially from when voters approved the RTA in 2006. There have also been disagreements between city and other officials in the RTA over changes to projects, such as the Broadway widening project becoming more narrow after a drawn-out clash.

Romero has said however that “unless we get answers in terms of an equitable voting system and an answer of how we get our projects that still have to be completed funded,” the city won’t continue to be part of the RTA and will send to voters a ballot measure that would keep city tax dollars out of the RTA and within Tucson.

Some of the county supervisors have said they’re “concerned” about the city’s ultimatum but also about its attitude towards its regional partners. The county is already suing the city because in June, the Council raised the price of water for customers living outside of its limits.

At the time, Supervisor Sharon Bronson, chair of the county board, said the move by the city was “greedy” and has since said that the relationship between the city and the county is “quite strained” because of the issues of water and the RTA.

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“This is a region. We need to behave regionally,” she said. “I hope as we move forward, they’ll reconsider their position (on the RTA). Time will tell. It’s concerning. We should behave together as a region because when one of our regional partners benefits frankly the entire region benefits.”

'A long time coming'

City Councilmen Steve Kozachik and Paul Cunningham agree with Bronson that there’s more value in the city working with its regional partners than going alone, but said Tucson taxpayers are still getting an unfair deal out of the RTA.

“I would agree that our relationship is strained right now with the county,” Kozachik said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s up to the city to roll over and let them walk on us with respect to the RTA. Just because we’re having differences of opinion doesn’t mean that it’s incumbent on the city of Tucson and our governing body that we’re the ones who are going to cave.”

The city isn’t moving away from its regional partnerships, Kozachik and Cunningham said, but both the RTA and the water issues were “a long time coming,” Cunningham said. The city and county work together every day in other smaller areas, Cunningham said, for example through the County Attorney’s Office and the Tucson Police Department, through county wastewater management and Tucson Water and through the county and city parks and recreation Departments.

Supervisor Steve Christy, the lone Republican on the county board whose District 4 covers Cunningham’s city Ward 2 on the East Side, said in June that relations between the city and the county are “at an all-time low” and more recently said that the city’s stance on water rates and the RTA are part of a “three-pronged attack by the city of Tucson to cease any kind of effort of collaboration with the county and its jurisdictions.”

Also part of that attack, he said, is the city’s opposition to the county Paygo program, which uses property taxes to fund transportation projects across the county. City officials have said not enough of the Paygo funds go to pay for projects in Tucson.

Christy said the city's actions are part of “a power grab to assert itself not only against the other jurisdictions in Pima County but against Pima County itself” and that the city’s request for a weighted voting system is "a power grab by the city to insert itself into the decision-making process so everything is weighted more heavily in favor of the city.”

“The whole idea of collaboration among the regional partners is being thrown out the window by the city of Tucson,” he said. “They’re threatening to walk away and not having anything to do with it, which would be derailing the whole system that’s proven to be so effective.”

Cunningham said that he’s “not putting a lot of stock in Mr. Christy’s contention” and that he would “still characterize his relationship with four of the other supervisors as good.”

The city’s stance on RTA is “not an example of us not being good regional partners,” Kozachik said. “It’s a timing issue” that’s bringing the topic to a head this week. The RTA board meeting and the Feb. 1 deadline for filing a ballot proposition for an alternative transportation-funding sales tax are less than a week apart and only a few months after the county filed their lawsuit for the water rates.

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Kozachik, a former Republican, did agree with Christy in saying the relationship between the city and county are strained, saying it’s “one of the few things I would agree with Steve Christy on.”

The Council was set to discuss its relationship with Pima Association of Governments and the RTA during a study session meeting Tuesday afternoon. If the city decides to put a proposition on the ballot for a spring election, asking voters to increase sales taxes to fund a go-it-alone approach to funding street improvements, the Council will have to make that move in the coming weeks.

Compromise

Supervisor Rex Scott, the Pima County representative on the RTA board, said he’s “not prepared to say” relationships are at a low point between the county and the city and that “we need to take one issue at a time.”

“I don’t think there’s any good that’s furthered by saying the overall relationship is at a standstill,” he said. “Someone who you are jousting with one day, you may be walking arm-in-arm with the next day. I think we always have to look for opportunities to work in partnership not just with the city but also with all the other jurisdictions in the region, and I’m committed to doing that.”

Scott offered a compromise as a member of the RTA board and the Pima Association of Governments Regional Council, which manages the RTA. The RTA board mirrors the PAG council as each government gets one vote on both, but Scott’s compromise would have created weighted voting on the PAG council but not the RTA as a way of getting around limits set by state law.

Pima County has a representative on the RTA board partly to account for the unincorporated areas like the Catalina Foothills, which is also represented by Scott on the county board. With Scott’s proposal, Pima County would receive three votes based on the unincorporated population and the city of Tucson four votes.

Romero made a proposal that would create the same number of votes but on the RTA board. Neither proposal has garnered much public support from others on the RTA board because they would give the city and the county a near majority of the votes if they work together, which concerns the smaller jurisdictions.

Kozachik and Romero both said during the Jan. 11 Council meeting that they still expect the RTA board to make “serious commitments” to a weighted voting system.

'A tenous position'

Like Christy, Bronson mentioned the city’s stance with RTA and Paygo when talking about their water rate hikes in June as areas where the city is leaving behind its commitments to its regional partners. She pointed more directly at Romero and the current City Council, however, as being the issue.

“We were under Mayor Rothchild and Mayor Walkup in a very beneficial, mutually beneficial, relationship,” she said. “That relationship is quite strained at the moment given the current City Council and mayor.”

Working with Romero and the current Council, which almost always votes unanimously, has been more challenging, Bronson said, as dialogue has been “almost non-existent” between Romero and county leaders. Shortly before the city passed the water rate hike, city and county leadership were supposed to hold a public meeting to discuss the issue, but the event fell through after city officials decided not to attend.

Bronson was elected in 1996 to represent District 3, the largest district by area in Pima County as it includes parts of the city of Tucson, all of the Tohono O’odham Nation and almost everything west of Tucson, stretching to the Yuma County line. During her five terms in office, she said, Mayors Jonathan Rothchild and Bob Walkup worked more closely with her and the county than Romero has.

Romero, Kozachik and Cunningham have all said they want to stay on the RTA and continue with the RTA Next, which would commit the city and its regional partners to another 20-year transportation funding plan. However, the city may go with “a story of two RTAs,” Kozachik said, if Romero and the Council feel unsatisfied with the outcome of the RTA meeting this Thursday.

If the city decides to leave the RTA, major transportation projects will have to be funded by a sales tax that will go before city of Tucson voters in the spring, among other sources including federal funds like those from recently passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Romero said.

The possibility of federal funds and a new sales tax that could be double the current half-cent sales tax give the city with “incredible options,” Romero said. However, Bronson said previous sales tax ballot measures have passed by narrow margins in the city and that if a new one fails, it could weaken Tucson’s relation with its regional partners even more.

“I think if they decide to withdraw from the RTA and put something on the ballot in 2022, and it fails,” she said. “That’s going to put them in a very tenuous position with the remaining RTA board members.”

In 2012, Tucson's Prop. 409 road construction measure passed by less than one percent. In 2017, Prop. 101 garnered a 22-point margin as Tucson voters approved a road restoration and public safety package.

TucsonSentinel.com relies on contributions from our readers to support our reporting on Tucson's civic affairs. Donate to TucsonSentinel.com today!
If you're already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors, colleagues and customers to help support quality local independent journalism.

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

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