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Tucson Council to vote Tuesday on special election for road funds after RTA nixes weighted voting

Tucson voters may be asked to fund more street work with sales taxes inside city limits, with the Council calling a special meeting for Tuesday, after the Regional Transportation Authority didn't go along with a plan for weighted voting, proposed by Mayor Regina Romero, to determine what projects get funded by the county-wide agency that covers nine jurisdictions.

The city could decide to walk away from the RTA entirely, and not participate in an extension of that 20-year program. A go-it-alone plan would mean increasing the current city sales tax for roads, to make up for the difference in funding for projects inside the city limits. Or city officials could instead ask voters to extend the current tax for Tucson streets, while remaining part of the RTA while regional leaders consider if the decision-making process should change.

The City Council meeting for Tuesday at 5 p.m. was announced Monday afternoon, shortly before the 24-hour legal deadline to inform the public that a meeting will be held.

While the other RTA leaders last week rebuffed Tucson's move to have weighted votes that favor the city — which has the largest share of residents and contributes the most in taxes to the regional partnership, the RTA board did give Tucson representatives more oversight and say in drafting RTA Next. That plan is intended to follow the current RTA, which was approved by voters in 2006 and ends in 2026.

The City Council passed a motion in September, saying they’ll leave the RTA Next process as of Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022, if their concerns about representation and voting on the RTA board are not met. But Romero and Council members have said they prefer to stay with the RTA to fund major transportation projects.

The Council will decide Tuesday, if they send a proposition to voters for a May special election, what the city sales tax in that measure will be, and if it will include a percentage dedicated to law enforcement and public safety funding, in addition to road construction. The city's current half-cent sales tax was approved by voters in 2017, with 40% going to roads and 60% to public safety capital spending during its five-year duration. The RTA is also funded by a half-cent sales tax, collected throughout Pima County.

Romero called the RTA “unfair and inequitable” earlier in January and mentioned issues like putting Tucson projects in the last five years of the 20-year plan and leaving the city to cover funding gaps. Tucson officials have said they want the RTA board, rather than its current system of one-jurisdiction, one-vote, to go to a weighted or proportional voting system that would give some members more votes based on their populations and tax revenues.

The RTA, which is set up under state law, would need to have approval from both the Arizona Legislature and governor to make the kind of changes to its board Romero and City Council have demanded.

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“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 Council planned earlier in January to respond to the RTA board’s decision on weighted voting with a special meeting held only a few days after. They're also trying to meet a Feb. 1 deadline for determining the details of what would be Prop. 101 on a May ballot. If Tucson isn't part of RTA Next, the city would have to rely on its own tax revenues to fund major transportation projects — with $13 billion needed for more than 230 projects in the 20-year MoveTucson master plan.

The RTA board rejected a weighted voting proposal made by Romero that would have given Tucson four votes on the board and Pima County three. Tucson residents make up 46 percent of all voters represented in the RTA district, while unincorporated Pima County areas have 39 percent of all voters.

The board also rejected a compromise offered by Pima County Supervisor Rex Scott that would have made the same changes as Romero’s proposal but to the regional council of the Pima Association of Governments. The RTA board is set up to mirror the PAG council, an older agency, but makes its own decisions independent of the council. Unlike PAG, the RTA has taxing authority.

Scott ended up opposing his own proposal on the RTA board, saying passing a compromise without the full support of the members “sends the wrong message to the public,” he said.

The RTA board instead unanimously approved a compromise offered by Ted Maxwell, who represents the Arizona Department of Transportation on the RTA board. His plan gave Tucson three more members on two committees responsible for reviewing the completion of the current RTA plan and drafting the next one.

The city of Tucson now has proportional representation on the Citizens Advisory Committee and 13 of its 35 members, giving it a majority vote. The RTA board also filled 13 vacancies the committee had at their last meeting. Tucson also gained another member on the Technical Management Committee, which monitors how well the RTA plan is being carried out.

Maxwell also committed the board to continuing a discussion on whether to adopt the weighted voting system used by the Maricopa Association of Governments. MAG members can ask for weighted voting to veto motions, but it’s rarely used. There are also only nine members of PAG but 34 members of MAG. No one one MAG has an overwhelming share of the voters, and there are more options for various types of coalitions.

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.

Tucson Council has tax-rate options

After the board voted 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.

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“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.”

Tucson has “incredible options” for RTA alternatives, Romero said in a Jan. 11 Council meeting. She included federal dollars from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act among those options along with relying more on Highway User funds from the state and sales tax revenue from the city.

The city has a choice between four tax rates — a quarter, half, .75 or full-cent tax — 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, City Manager Mike 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.

The RTA was approved by voters in 2006, and its board includes a single representative for South Tucson, Marana, Oro Valley, Sahuarita, Tohono O’odham Nation, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, the city of Tucson, ADOT and Pima County. It 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.

There are 32 projects the RTA still needs to complete, but is short by about $300 million. Tucson projects are underfunded by about $200 million, Councilman Steve Kozachik has said. That underfunding is the result of a shortcoming in tax revenue from the recession, but council members also point to inflation, which would require the RTA adjust how much it’s required to put towards projects per its own bylaws.

Kozachik has also said the RTA board needs to give Tucson more power to change how projects are done, saying projects such as the Broadway and First Avenue widenings are going on without consideration to changes in how much traffic those roads now get.

The meeting on Tuesday, Kozachik said, is meant to allow City Council to react to the RTA board and decide if it got enough “serious commitments” from them about making those kinds of changes to the RTA.

“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.’”

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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