RTA board gives Tucson more oversight on regional roadwork, still nixes weighted voting
City officials moving to put go-it-alone road tax on spring ballot
Two area transportation oversight committees will have more representatives from the city of Tucson, but the Regional Transportation Authority board didn't approve weighted voting Thursday — while Mayor Regina Romero and the City Council said they'll leave the RTA without serious changes that favor Tucson residents.
The RTA board voted unanimously to change how the road construction agency's committees are structured, but stopped well short of giving the city everything they've pushed. The cross-jurisdictional RTA funds major road projects throughout Pima County with money from sales taxes, but Romero has called its governance “unfair and inequitable,” and said that the city needs more say over how it’s run or they won't be part of an extension known as RTA Next.
The RTA board has nine members who represent jurisdictions and agencies affected by RTA projects, including the city of South Tucson, Oro Valley, Marana, Sahuarita, Tohono O’odham Nation, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, the Arizona Department of Transportation, the city of Tucson and Pima County, which represents the unincorporated areas. The 20-year authorization for the RTA has given each member one vote.
But Tucson leaders have said that they won't take part in extending the RTA, set to expire in 2026, if the board doesn't have weighted voting, based on population size or the amount of tax money generated to fund transportation projects.
Romero and members of the City Council have said this would solve issues Tucson has faced, such as deciding when projects are funded and adjusting project prices for inflation.
The changes made by the RTA leadership incorporate some of what Tucson leaders are looking for, but fall short of giving the city more votes than much smaller jurisdictions. Instead, the RTA's board will revisit that issue later.
After the RTA meeting, Romero said Thursday in a press release that she was happy with the changes, writing that “today's vote is a positive step forward in the direction of regional collaboration.”
"Tucsonans want fair representation in making critical decisions about our transportation future that will affect our region for decades to come. Today we made progress, although we still have much work that lies ahead," she said. “I am pleased to see that we will continue exploring governance structures that provide an equitable voice to Tucsonans and return to this issue at a later time.”
Romero proposed late last year that the RTA move to a weighted voting system that would give the city more say in the RTA. The current board structure mirrors the regional council of the Pima Association of Governments, an agency of “units of government” set up in the 1970s. Representatives from other local governments have said that changing the voting system would require changes in state law.
Marana Mayor Ed Honea said the proposal was “a big political football” and “good luck trying to get that changed in the Legislature.”
Honea criticized Tucson’s position and pointed out that Marana collects more sales tax revenue than a lot of the smaller jurisdictions and the tribes combined, but wasn’t asking for greater representation. The issue of Tucson projects costing more because they were completed later had to do with Tucson requesting many projects be pushed back to get the Sun Link streetcar finished sooner.
“When we start going to a weighted voting system, I think we destroy this organization,” he said. “I’m willing to make concessions on other issues, but you put Marana in a really tough spot.”
Pima County Supervisor Rex Scott, who represents the county on the RTA board, made a similar proposal to Romero's. He suggested weighted voting for the PAG council only, not for the RTA board, but then said he wouldn’t vote for his own compromise on Thursday because it was clear that there would not be unanimous support.
Passing a compromise without the full support of the board “sends the wrong message to the public,” he said.
“Adding votes to the (PAG) regional council and leaving the RTA board alone seemed like a good compromise to me. It may still be,” he said. “But we’re not sending the right messages to our constituents if we try to push it through today in what will surely be a divided vote.”
Scott, Honea and Romero and the rest of the board ended up putting their support behind a plan offered only a day before the meeting by Ted Maxwell, who represents the Arizona Department of Transportation on the RTA board.
Maxwell’s plan gives Tucson more representation on two committees in the RTA that oversee how projects are carried out, it asks for a new plan to fund projects that are over-running the RTA's budget and schedule, and says that the board should consider a weighted voting system similar to what's used by the Maricopa Association of Governments.
Although it didn’t establish weighted voting, Maxwell said that he was hopeful it gets to Tucson’s real concern, which was having more say on the board.
“It doesn’t address the voting issue,” he said. “But it does address the voice.”
'Unfair and inequitable'
Pima County voters approved the RTA in 2006 as a special taxing district, with a half-cent tax on revenues from utilities, restaurants and bars, rent for real and personal property, and retail sales. The state collects the sales tax and uses it to fund the RTA, which originally identified $2.1 billion in road construction needs.
Since it was passed, the RTA has completed almost a thousand transportation projects including road widenings, connections to the interstates, 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.
Tucson leaders have complained that too many RTA projects inside the city limits are being done in the next few years, at the very end of the RTA's 20-year calendar, and that the city is having to make up the difference between prices forecast in 2006 and current construction costs. Romero and members of the City Council have said that the RTA should also bear the burden of projects such as the Broadway and Grant Road widenings costing more than projected two decades ago.
Others counter that because of the recession a decade ago, that the RTA has taken in less tax revenue than projected during those years.
“We are paying into the system, but we are not being listened to,” Romero said earlier this month. “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 original 20-year RTA plan laid out a schedule for projects, taking input from local governments on when to tackle specific projects and taking into account the flow of tax revenue to pay for them.
The RTA is now in its final period, from 2022-2026. City leaders have said too many of their projects have been put into this last period with higher-than-expected prices. Moreover, city officials are frustrated that they can’t solve this issue through the RTA’s one-vote-per-jurisdiction voting system.
City Councilman Steve Kozachik, representing Midtown Tucson, said that the projects affecting the city of Tucson in the last period are either “unfunded or underfunded” and that the RTA board is ignoring its bylaws by sticking to a 2006 budget for those projects without adjusting for inflation.
“We have almost $200 million worth of city of Tucson projects that have been pushed to the back of the bus,” Kozachik said. “We’re told by the RTA that the 2006 budget is what they’re going to hold firm to despite the fact that in their own bylaws the inflation adjustment is called for. If they continue to take that position then we’re getting screwed.”
Many projects for Oro Valley, Sahuarita and Marana were done in the earlier periods, before inflation. The cost of the $200 million in remaining projects will go up in these last five years, Kozachik said, leading him to agree with Romero in saying the RTA is unfair.
“The funding mechanism is an issue. Honesty and budgeting is a serious issue,” he said. “It’s certainly an issue of equity in terms of how the city of Tucson taxpayers are being treated.”
Leaders from other jurisdictions have noted that the city pushed the nearly $200 million Sun Link streetcar project, which was paid for with city funding, federal grants and about $75 million in RTA monies, to near the front of the line.
Tucson voters may decide on city-only tax for road improvements
In December, the city published a master plan for transportation improvements called MoveTucson, which calls for spending $13 billion for more than 230 projects over the next 20 years. Romero has said that Tucson “has incredible options” for funding that plan including federal dollars from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The mayor also recently visited U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigeig.
If Tucson leaves the RTA, the city will have to pay for its projects through revenues from its own sales tax. Tucson voters will go to the polls in the spring if the Council puts a measure on the ballot to extend or increase a city sales tax for roadwork, and Council members are expecting to meet before a Feb. 1 deadline to call for an election. The tax rate they select depends on what compromises the RTA board makes at its meeting Thursday, Council members said earlier.
The City Council may meet on Jan. 31, Romero has said.
Romero’s RTA restructuring proposal, which was rejected Thursday, would have given Tucson four votes on the board and Pima County three as Tucson voters make up 46 percent of all voters represented in the RTA district and unincorporated Pima County voters are 39 percent of all voters.
This raised concerns that if Tucson and Pima County voted together, they could stop or pass any motion from the RTA board and snuff out power from smaller jurisdictions. Romero’s plan would also have to be approved by the Republican-dominated state Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey.
The city of Tucson opposed a bill in 2011 that would have created weighted voting on the RTA board and joined all its regional partners in opposing it. This was also expected to create legal issues with the Legislature.
“The one vote per member requirement has remained consistent throughout the RTA legislative history,” according to a legal opinion included in an RTA report. “There is no reason to believe that the RTA board could deviate from the statutory language without legal consequence.”
The motion that passed Thursday makes changes to two committees on the RTA: the Citizens Advisory Committee, with members who give input on the RTA plan, and the Technical Management Committee, which monitors how well the plan is being carried out.
Tucson will now have proportional representation on the Citizens Advisory Committee, which is a 35-member group appointed by the RTA board. The RTA board also voted to approve 13 new members for the committee, which had vacancies. Tucson now holds more than half of the votes on the CAC, which is responsible for creating the RTA Next plan for 2026 that voters will have to approve in the next few years.
A single Tucson representative was added to the Technical Management Committee, and Maxwell’s plan committed the RTA board to considering an extra representative for Tucson on the Citizens Accountability for Regional Transportation, which reviews revenue and expenditures.
Maxwell’s plan also committed the RTA board to considering a weighted voting system similar to what the Maricopa Association of Governments has though MAG works differently from PAG. While PAG has 9 members, there are 34 members on MAG, and none of them have an overwhelming share of the voters. More options for various types of coalitions are possible, and weighted voting only happens when requested as a way of blocking motions on the board.
The RTA board also agreed to keep talking about funding gaps for the last RTA projects inside city limits and to look for ways to decrease how much Tucson has to pay to complete them, including by delaying them until the beginning of RTA Next.
The approved plan will also require a review process under RTA Next to allow jurisdictions to have more say in a project's cost and how it’s done. Romero, Kozachik and other Council members had previously complained about being ignored on projects like widenings of North First Avenue and Broadway.
Romero said she was “pleased to see progress on a plan that ensures the city’s remaining RTA projects are fully funded and does not place an unfair burden on city taxpayers,” but she made it clear to the board that the city of Tucson wasn’t done yet.
“We are going to continue to have hard and difficult discussions as a way to do the right thing, to make investments in our community for the benefit of the people in the region,” Romero said at the Thursday meeting. “I don’t think it’s over. I think we’re going to continue to have discussions to make (the RTA) more equitable and fair for the city of Tucson.”
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.