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RTA says changes to 1st Ave widening should get voter OK

Tucson is trying to use its newly added seats on Regional Transportation Authority committees to cut costs on a road widening project for North 1st Avenue. The RTA, which funds major road work in the Tucson metro area, has recommended sending the project to voters a part the RTA Next package, a move that has frustrated city leaders.

The initial plan to revamp the stretch of Tucson roadway was approved by Pima County voters in 2006 when they created the RTA.

The widening would affect 1st Ave between Grant Road and River Road and between Orange Grove to Ina Road. These two section are currently three-lane roads, meaning they have two lanes for cars plus a bike lane going in each direction, but the RTA calls for doubling the lanes to six. Tucson proposed to change the scope of the widening between Grant and River by suggesting RTA only widen the roads to four lanes instead of six. Pima County has also asked to scale down the widening between Orange Grove and Ina.

An RTA project review task force recommended Wednesday that the 1st Avenue plan should go to voters as part of the RTA Next package, a second 20-year phase that would begin after the original plan expires in 2026. Tucson's revision of the plan to RTA would cut the $79 million price tag of the project by $20 million and get it done within the current RTA. Pima County and Tucson leaders agree they could save money for their own taxpayers and the cash-strapped RTA, which is about $300 million short of funds for its final projects.

The Project Review Task Force that made the recommendation for the Technical Management Committee agreed with the scope changes, saying they say "minimal implication on the traffic performance in the corridor and parallel corridors and cross streets with regards to delay and congestion" at an April 13 meeting. The proposed changes from Tucson and Pima County, however, were significant enough to require voter approval, they found.

"We don't foresee any problems with the city's proposal," Curtis Lueck, the co-chair of the task force said at a meeting on Wednesday. "If this proposed scope is sent back to the voters with inclusion in the RTA Next in phase five, it's more than likely it will be approved by the voters."

City of Tucson leaders have said that they want to see the 1st Avenue project completed under the current RTA, however, not RTA Next, and that it can be done for less. Tucson considered leaving the RTA and hasn't committed to joining its next phase, so if the project goes to voters, the only way to complete the project with help of RTA funds would be to join the RTA Next.

RTA Executive Director Farhad Moghimi said that Tucson's "independent effort" to push through their scope changes "has delayed that particular RTA voter-mandated project from moving forward as scheduled" and that state law "requires significant changes to the plan be approved by the voters."

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Tucson submitted the revised plan in response to a request for ideas on how to finish the remaining projects approved in 2006 before the June 2026 expiration date of the original RTA plan. The RTA made the request through their Technical Management Committee, on which the city recently obtained more seats.

First things first

If RTA Next fails in an election, RTA still has time to start the widening and other remaining projects by the end of June 2026, Moghimi said. But the RTA's stance is that the city of Tucson and Pima County would obligated by law to deliver the projects under its original six-lane scope and pay their share of the $79 million price tag.

Tucson Midtown Councilman Steve Kozachik, whose ward sits just outside the project area, said “it’s already been to voters.” The RTA wants to send the project to the ballot box to “leverage us into having to support (RTA Next),” he said. He wants to to see the project completed in the current RTA, or it's “going to be a big no sale, and that’ll fail at the ballot box because they simply have to have city of Tucson voters or it'll go down in flames.”  

County Administrator Jan Lesher wrote in a memo to RTA leadership that the nearly $79 million budget for the 1st Avenue widening could better be used to widen Silverbell Road from Ina Road to Grant Road, a large stretch that runs the length of Flowing Wells and the North Side. The idea was first put forth by Lesher’s predecessor Chuck Huckelberry.

Marana Town Manager Terry Rozema signed a memo agreeing with the county’s idea, saying they’ve been trying for the past decade to get RTA to widen Silverbell to four lanes between Camino del Cerro and Ina. Silverbell, which runs into Marana for a few miles before turning to Twin Peaks Road, is a “key corridor,” Rozema writes, especially as an alternative to the often-congested Interstate 10.

Recent RTA traffic projections, based on a model that assumes Pima County will have a 1.2 million population in 2024, found that the numbers of drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians expected to use this corridor of 1st Avenue is “substantially lower” than what was forecast in 2006. 

The only reason to complete the project under its original scope, Kozachik said, is to complete the projects based on "inaccurate data." Moghimi said RTA agrees with the updated data, but the revised projects based on those data are still significant enough to require voter approval under state law. 

The projects are listed as RTA ballot #13 and #14. RTA ballot #13 is the smaller stretch of road on the western edge of Catalina Foothills between Ina and Orange Grove, and #14 is the longer stretch between River and Grant. The section between these two project areas, which runs from Orange Grove to River, is four lanes, with bike lanes on either side, a median and turn lanes next to two travel lanes for drivers.

Tucson and its allies

Tucson obtained more seats on two RTA advisory groups and a review committee in late January after mulling an exit from RTA because of a claimed lack of representation. The city began to force the issue of representation last year when city leaders said they wanted weighted voting on the RTA Governing Board or they would walk.

The additional seats went to Tucson as a compromise along with an agreement from the RTA Governing Board to fully fund all of Tucson’s projects in the current RTA phase. The City Council voted against leaving the RTA in early February, but Kozachik said the issue isn't over and that they still haven't committed to an RTA Next, saying “what we voted on was to continue the conversation.”

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Pima County leaders haven't voiced any opposition to shifting the 1st Avenue widening to RTA Next, but they want to also reduce the scope of the project. Based on Lesher’s proposal to use the money for Silverbell instead, Kozachik said it sounds like the county is “on our side,” and he hopes Rex Scott, the representative for Pima County on the RTA Governing Board and a county supervisor, votes against sending it to the ballot.

Scott, whose district includes Catalina Foothills and Marana, said he doesn’t agree that it means they’re on the same side, and that he’ll wait for the RTA’s Citizens Advisory and Technical Management committees to make their recommendations before deciding how to vote.

The final say of whether send the projects to voters is with the RTA Governing Board, which mirrors the board of the Pima Association of Governments, but their next meeting is in early June.

Kozachik had mentioned the 1st Avenue widening project several times when Tucson's City Council was talking about an exit from the RTA. It was a key example of an issue where Tucson needs more voice on the RTA, he said, as the city needs to be able to veto projects in the city that aren’t as necessary as they may have been when voters approved it 15 years ago.

Tucson's is still being ignored by the RTA, Kozachik said, though he noted the task force is only making a recommendation and no real decision has been made. However, it’s important to not let already approved projects go to RTA Next, with voters again being asked to OK them, he said.

“If we say yes to that here, then they can take the same position on all the rest of our projects that are pending on the current RTA,” he said. “All that’s doing is backing us into the corner of saying if you want to get your projects done you’ve got to come out and support RTA Next. I’m not playing that game.”

'They're making a big mistake'

About $75 million for the two 1st Avenue projects would come from the RTA, which is funded through state sales tax. The remaining costs, just shy of $4 million, would have to come from the city and county, each having to pay for project in the their jurisdictions. 

Tucson would have to spend $3 million to widen 1st Avenue to six lanes between Grant and River, and Pima County would have to spend $700,000 to widen the section between Ina and Orange Grove. Tucson's revised proposal would cost about $20 million less than the original plan by constructing one less driving lane, and Kozachik said it’s closer to ​​"reflecting actual traffic counts and saving money."

Tucson funds their roadwork projects and their part of RTA projects with their own half-cent sales tax. Voters will have a chance to decide whether to continue that tax to fund road work on May 17, when they vote on Prop. 411.

Kozachik said that the city had to argue with RTA leadership for four years to overturn a similar project that would have widened Broadway to eight lanes, saying the only reason RTA wants to widen these roads is because they’re putting their faith in outdated traffic projections. Traffic counts are lower than expected, and he said jurisdictions should able to revise projects to account for changes like that. If the RTA Governing Board and technical committee insist that they can only ask voters to make that kind of change, “they’re making a big mistake,” he said, because it wasn't what they promised voters in 2006. 

“For you to say what was on the ballot is what we have to do is also saying that what we put on the ballot was a false promise to the voters because what we were saying is 'traffic projections would increase.' That hasn’t happened,” he said. “They lock in on saying that we can do nothing other than what was on the (2006) ballot. That’s been their mantra so far. That is not the position they took on Broadway after we fought them.”

The alternative for Tucson if they want to fund their major road work ambitions would be funds from their half-cent sales tax along with a mix of federal and state funds including the Bipartison Infrastructure Law and Highway User Revenue Funds. The city is already implementing Move Tucson, a 20-year transportation master plan that includes 236 projects and more than $13 billion in costs. The city estimates the Prop. 411 tax will bring in $75 million per year for the 10 years it's set to last.

The RTA Governing Board, which will decide on the issue, has one voting member for each of the nine jurisdictions that participate in the agency: Tucson, Pima County, South Tucson, Sahuarita, Marana, Oro Valley, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Tohono O’odham Nation and the Arizona State Transportation Board.

Supervisor Scott said he “felt very optimistic, very positive” about the compromise RTA and Tucson reached in late January and “the commitment all the jurisdictions made to work with each other.”

“It’s still the way I feel,” he 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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Road work in early March on East Ft. Lowell Road.