Tucson sticks with RTA; sending extension of city road tax to voters in May
City Council votes to not walk away from Regional Transportation Authority over concerns about representation
Tucson will stick with the Regional Transportation Authority and ask voters to extend the city's half-cent sales tax in May following a City Council meeting on Tuesday. The city was set to leave the RTA before its board unanimously voted in favor of a compromise last week that Mayor Regina Romero called “a tangible move forward.”
The half-cent city tax or a potential increase in the levy were part of the Council’s plans to replace the RTA as a source of transportation improvement funds, if they decided to leave the regional partnership. The current city sales tax, which has funded streets and public safety investments, will expire in June this year, five years after it was passed in 2017.
City residents will decide whether to extend it another 10 years on May 17 by voting on Prop. 411, which will be dedicated to roads inside the city limits.
The city’s gripe with the RTA had to do with some Tucson projects being left until the last years of the 20-year RTA plan, which was passed in 2006. Tax revenue collected by the RTA — which imposes a half-cent sales tax throughout Pima County — is short of funds for these final projects by about $300 million dollars following the recession, and projects in Tucson are short of funding by about $200 million. City Council members pushed publicly for the RTA to give them more power on its board to fix the issue, but the board agreed on a compromise on Thursday that gave city more input on planning, but put off a population-based weighted voting system among the partners. The city's proposal for weighted voting was expected to create legal challenges at the state level, and smaller jurisdictions were worried it would give Tucson and Pima County too many votes on the board.
In the next few years, Pima County voters will have to approve plans for RTA Next, a new 20-year transportation funding plan. RTA collects sales tax to fund its projects in the metropolitan area that includes Tucson, South Tucson, Oro Valley, Marana, Sahuarita, Tohono O’odham Nation, Pascua Yaqui territory and unincorporated Pima County.
The Tucson tax rate being sent to voters as Prop. 411, which is separate from the RTA tax, is estimated to raise $75 million a year for transportation funds, City Manager Mike Ortega said, bringing in $750 million in total revenue that will mostly go towards residential road repairs. The ballot measure promises 80 percent of the tax revenues for repairing and resurfacing residential roads and 20 percent for public safety improvements like bike lanes and speed bumps.
If the tax is extended for another 10 years, Romero said, it will generate enough revenue “to cover all of the neighborhood roads in our city.” She also spoke on the importance of protecting bicyclists and pedestrians with the road safety improvements it funds, saying “we are seeing way too many deaths in our city.”
The City Council passed both a motion to stay on the RTA and to approve the language for Prop. 411 on Tuesday. Midtown Councilman Steve Kozachik praised the compromise put forward in the RTA board meeting by retired Air Force general Ted Maxwell, who sits on the board as representative for the Arizona Department of Transportation.
Kozachik had been one of the louder advocates for a weighted voting system in previous Council meetings, but he said on Tuesday that Maxwell’s compromise “was really good” as Tucson now has more members on the committee that will draft RTA Next and another that reviews how the RTA plan is carried out.
He also complimented Maxwell’s ability to resolve the situation, saying “he heard loudly and clearly it was our voice that we were concerned about.” He said Maxwell showed “tremendous leadership” and that he “salvaged the RTA.”
Funding for the last projects were still a concern for Kozachik, he said, saying he has trouble trusting that RTA Executive Director Farhad Maghimi won’t continue to expect Tucson to cover funding gaps with just city revenue.
“I’m still concerned because I’ve seen far too much history with, frankly, their executive director pushing back and trying to shift costs to us,” he said. “While I agree overall that the movement was positive and we should affirmatively vote to stick with the conversation and not pull out of RTA Next…I don’t think we’d have gotten there if we didn’t draw the Feb. 1 line in the sand.”
Romero, who had called the RTA “unfair and inequitable” before the Thursday meeting, also spoke about her appreciation for Maxwell’s diplomacy, saying “he really worked towards listening to the concerns that the city of Tucson and its mayor and council had.”
It’s also important, she said, that the city still has a chance to talk about adopting a voting model based on weighted representation used by the Maricopa Association of Governments to block motions. While Romero did approve the compromise, she promised the rest of the RTA board that the city would continue to push the interests of Tucson residents.
“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. “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.”
The city of Tucson finished a master plan in December called MoveTucson, which calls for $13 billion to fund more than 230 transportation projects over the 20 years. When discussing alternatives for the RTA, Romero said the city of Tucson has “incredible options” for funding transportation improvements. She included in those options relying more on federal funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and on state Highway User funds.
Romero said in the meeting and in a statement released Tuesday that the city should turn its attention now to fix residential roads. Kozachik echoed that, saying Tucson should leave arterial road improvements to the RTA and “take responsibility” for its residential roads.
“Our local road repair and safety needs are separate and distinct from regional transportation needs,” Mayor Romero said in her statement. “I look forward to continuing our work with the RTA to address regional priorities, while we take action to address our local roads.”
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.