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Is it time for the RTA to start fixing bad roads?
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Is it time for the RTA to start fixing bad roads?

Desperation could be driving push to revamp Regional Transportation Authority

  • Workers milling away old pavement on East Grant Road near Mountain Avenue last week, part of the city's spring 2015 repaving of Grant in Midtown.
    Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.comWorkers milling away old pavement on East Grant Road near Mountain Avenue last week, part of the city's spring 2015 repaving of Grant in Midtown.

While riders in one part of Tucson can ride a modern street car and animals crossing North Oracle Road have their own overpass, 80 percent of Tucson's residential streets are rated poor to very poor. About 60 percent of Pima County's roads are said to be fair to poor.

Millions of dollars have been spent to give the region many improvements, including sidewalks, bike paths and street art, but street maintenance has largely being ignored. And the longer it's put off, the more expensive it costs to fix streets. The repair bill for poor roads across the county is approaching $1 billion.

Momentum appears to be growing, though, for a funding solution centered on the Regional Transportation Authority, a 12-year-old organization with members from every municipality and Native American community in the county. 

The pothole, as always, is how to fund needed repairs and maintenance and whether to tax, borrow (sell bonds), beg the state or feds for more money or limp along with continued piecemeal and temporary funding. And the RTA's mission would have to change or expand from building new things to fixing old ones.

The bad roads of Pima County, a perennial election issue, surfaced again in the just completed primary race for the Pima County Board of Supervisors. Many candidates offered road plans.

Steve Christy, who won the Republican nomination for the board's District 4, heard complaints about bad roads over and over as he campaigned. He faces Green Party candidate Josh Reilly in the Nov. 8 general election.

"It is one of the top questions, if not the top topic I am always asked," Christy said.

"They (voters) are angry, all right. They are really angry. They don't understand how the roads could be allowed to deteriorate to the point they have."

City and county officials estimate they need almost $600 million to fix city streets and $300 million to repair those in unincorporated areas of the county.

Priscilla Cornelio, the county's transportation director, said, "I have to say that in the past couple of years, road conditions have been a real key issue … I think the conversation is starting."

How bad is the problem?

Pretty bad. It is bumpety-bump-bump just about everywhere, especially on Tucson residential streets.

Streets all over the county are scientifically measured for roughness by an Automated Road Analyzer van with sensors and cameras. The van roams over streets at 15 miles an hour.

About half of Tucson's 385 miles of major streets are rated fair to very poor, with the rest rated good or excellent, said Michael Graham, a spokesman for the city's Transportation Department. A significant 37 percent are poor.

The city's 1,300 miles of neighborhood and local streets are worse. Seventy-eight percent of them are poor to very poor, with about 20 percent rated very poor. That means they probably need to be rebuilt. Only 13 percent are good or excellent.

Cornelio said about 60 percent of the county's roads are fair to poor.

The Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona several years ago began compiling a pothole index using roughness data from the Federal Highway Administration to show how Tucson's streets compare to 11 other metro areas.

Tucson ranked at the bottom, according to the latest version, based on 2013 data. 

The Tucson urban area, including parts of Marana, Oro Valley, Green Valley and Sahuarita, showed a little improvement between 2012 and 2013. With a score of 100 being average for the U.S., Tucson had a score of 125.5, indicating Tucson roads were 25.5 percent rougher than the U.S. urban area average. That was better than the 145.8 index based on 2012 data.

A newer report based on 2014 data should be released in the next few months, said George Hammond, an economist in the Eller College.

For the entire county, incorporated and unincorporated areas, the latest data (2013) from the Pima Association of Governments showed that 37 percent of roads were poor; 42 percent fair and only 20 percent good.

Regular maintenance is critical

Streets that aren't regularly resurfaced become more expensive to fix later.

Oro Valley's town engineer warned the town in 2010 that if it didn't invest $1.2 million per year in maintenance, the costs to repair streets could balloon to $64 million in five years, said Oro Valley Mayor Satish Hiremath. And so the town spends $1.2 million per year on maintenance.

"I think it's kind of hard for people to fathom that because it's an exponential number," he said.

Marana aims to oil, cover with a chip-seal or replace all of its 1,000 miles of roads every six years, said Ed Honea, Marana's mayor and current chair of the RTA.

"If you have county roads with potholes and cracks in the road, especially in this type of rainy season, what it does is soften up the base under the pavement. Then you get more potholes or the pavement starts crumbling," he said.

Of course, it's easier for such smaller and newer towns to keep a lid on crumbling streets. Pima County has about 1,800 miles of roads to maintain, and Tucson, about 1,700. Pima County sprawls over 9,200 square miles.

Many rural county roads probably weren't built well to begin with or haven't been maintained. Ruby Road, near Arivaca, for example, was originally a dirt road. The county applied a double chip seal (asphalt containing fine gravel) that held up for 20 years, but the road is now ridden with potholes.

"That's the way a number of our roads were improved in the past," Cornelio said.

She said it costs about $53,000 a mile to reseal a street and $213,500 a mile to rebuild it.

Pima County's generally hilly condition and natural drainage add another burden to road improvements and maintenance.  Streets often wash out and have to be barricaded and cleaned up afterwards. Tangerine Road in Marana, for example, has a wash crossing it about every 100 yards, Honea said.

Sharon Bronson, chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, said that when she goes to Ajo, which is in her district, there are times where she has to spend the night there because parts of Ajo Highway are flooded. Ajo is about a 2 1/2-hour drive from Tucson.

Adding a culvert or road to make a road accessible in the rainy season adds about 40 percent to the cost, Cornelio said.

What is being done?

Both Tucson and Pima County are not spending enough to maintain streets.

Their transportation departments each have about 300 employees, including supervisors. They keep busy keeping streetlights working, trimming plants from medians and in front of stop signs, filling potholes and shutting off flooded roads and then cleaning them after they are reopened.

Pima County's staff includes a crew of five workers who just fill potholes — about 150,000 of them over the two recent fiscal years.

But there isn't enough money or staff to fully repair the roads. Municipalities rely heavily on the state's Highway User Revenue Fund that is funded by gas and vehicle license taxes.

Unfortunately, HURF revenues have been falling because less gas is being sold due to more fuel efficient cars or vehicles that don't use gas at all. Also, the Legislature has swept some of that money, holding it back to balance the state budget rather than forwarding it on to counties and cities.

The HURF peaked at $674 million for the state in fiscal year 2006-2007 and then fell. It has been rising in recent years but in the fiscal year that ended June 30 was at $589.5 million.  

Tucson has had more luck supplementing that money than Pima County.

Tucson voters in 2012 approved a $100 million bond plan to fix and maintain roads. But that was just for five years. The bond program ends in about another year and a half, and the city will be paying on those bonds for 10-12 years on top of other debt, Graham said.

That $100 million was for 130 miles of major streets and 114 miles of residential streets. But because of lower costs, such as reduced prices for oil that reduced the cost of asphalt, the city is able to do all that for only $60 million.

It will use the extra $40 million to add another 40 roadway (550 lane miles) segments to the original plan. But after all the bond-funded work is done, Tucson still needs an estimated $600 million in roadwork, Graham said. About 70 percent of that is for neighborhood streets.

"We need a lot of money. We need a funding source," he said. "$20 million per year doesn't go far."

The Tucson City Council has begun discussing what to do about fixing its infrastructure, including roads, Graham said.

Pima County in 2015 held a bond election but voters by 53 to 47 percent rejected a proposition that included $160 million for road repair and pavement preservation for the entire region. Tucson would have received $65.6 million and unincorporated areas in Pima County, $68 million.

Not only did the county lose that chance but it has two factors that restrict how much it can spend on road repair.

First, the county is in a bind because 39 percent ($19 million) of its annual HURF revenues is being used to retire debt on $350 million in bonds the county sold for street repairs in 1997. Those bonds won't be fully paid off for another eight years.

If that $19 million were available, it would almost double what the county is spending this fiscal year for fixing roads. It is spending $15.7 million for roadway maintenance, such as filling potholes, sealing cracks, trimming vegetation and storm response, plus another $4.7 million for pavement preservation or resurfacing.

Borrowing money by selling bonds is not the best way to finance routine maintenance, Bronson said. 

"That should be pay as you go," she said.

The second Pima County oddity is that while its general fund (about $588 million this year) is partially supported by property taxpayers all over the county, the county doesn't use it to pave the streets in incorporated areas. Cities and towns prefer to do their own road work. The general fund is used to pay for core services such as courts, law enforcement, parks and libraries. Pima County's overall budget is about $1.2 billion but most of it is restricted and not available for street work, said Mark Evans, a spokesman for the county.

Hiremath said, "It's just kind of a weird animal how Pima County is set up because they are set up to compete directly with municipalities."

But Bronson said the roads got so bad that the Board of Supervisors had to free up about $5 million for pavement preservation from the general fund.

"Only in the last few years have we ever used general-fund dollars for road maintenance and that's because of the seriousness of the issue," Bronson said. "It's not equitable. Residents in incorporated areas that pay property taxes don't benefit from that."

The $4.7 million being spent this year for pavement preservation will only cover about 30 streets, Cornelio said. Ideally, that should be about $25 million per year.

So what is the solution?

The Legislature is likely to be asked again to raise the state's 18 cent per gallon gas tax, which hasn't been raised in 25 years. And lawmakers will probably again be asked to change the HURF formula to shift money from Maricopa County to counties that need it more, like Pima.

Changing the HURF formula would raise the county's receipts by about $6 million a year, to about $46.7 million, according to a June memo from County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry to the Board of Supervisors.

Based on what the county needs, that is a "drop in the bucket," Christy said during a recent appearance on Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel. Christy has a lot of experience with transportation funding as he has served on an chaired both the RTA and Arizona State Transportation Board.

Legislators earlier this year approved the formation of a Surface Transportation Funding Task Force task force that will look at what is needed to fix the state's roads and other infrastructure and if there are new ways to fund road improvements besides the gas tax.

Cornelio, though, is among those who don't have much hope that the state will help.

"The governor (Doug Ducey) has said 'There will be no increased taxes on my watch,'" she said. "We have to do this locally."

And if there is to be a local solution — particularly for Pima County, — it appears to center on the Regional Transportation Authority, assuming its mission can be legally changed and additional maintenance costs can be financed.

A number of county officials and Board of Supervisors candidates favor using the organization because it offers a regional approach and has proven to do what it said it would.

The authority's nine-member board includes a representative of every municipality in Pima County, as well as the Arizona State Transportation Board and the county itself.

It was formed after community and citizen leaders got so fed up with gridlock in the mid-2000s that they spent several years setting priorities and creating a $2.1 billion plan to fix many of the worst problems, and more.  The Legislature approved the concept and authorized no more than a half-cent sales tax to fund it.

The authority was created in 2004, and Pima County voters in 2006 approved its 20 year's worth of proposed projects and a half-cent sales tax.

The RTA program just reached its halfway point, completing more than 755 projects.

But RTA's mandate is for road improvements and a lot more, but virtually no maintenance. They offer "something for everyone" including major street improvements, 255 miles of bicycle lanes, 147 miles of sidewalks and an $11 million bridge to help wildlife cross busy Oracle Road near Catalina. It contributed $65 million to help pay for Tucson's almost $200 million, 3.9-mile Sun Link streetcar.

While many look to RTA to solve the region's road problems, there is disagreement over whether it should shift its resources now from building things to fixing them. Another question is whether voters and Legislators should be asked to make the half-cent sales tax a full cent so maintenance can be financed.

County Supervisor Ally Miller, a Republican, has joined those who want RTA's mission to switch to doing more maintenance with its existing budget but without raising the half-cent sales tax now. She said it should be extended in 10 years after the current tax expires.

County Administrator Huckleberry in April proposed a half-cent sales tax to be dedicated exclusively to roadway repair for 10 years. He said the additional tax would raise $300 million to fix county roads and $500 million for Tucson and can be administered by the RTA.

But changing RTA's mission and imposing another half-cent sales tax can't be done unless legislators and voters approve the changes, Honea said.  Also, it's not fair to ask residents of communities like Marana and Oro Valley that already maintain their streets to pay another half half-cent sales tax to help communities that aren't maintaining their streets, he said.

"If we start collecting countywide money for maintenance, then we've got a problem," he said.

The only way RTA could use countywide sales tax revenues for maintenance is if the proceeds were distributed according to a strict formula, perhaps based on the number of road miles and the population, to ensure that every city, town and the county gets a fair share, Honea said.

And the money would have to be tightly controlled so it is spent only on road repairs with maybe 80 percent going into materials or repair on roads, he said.

"If you start just writing a check every quarter, that money starts getting used in other places," he said, citing examples such as buildings and salaries for employees who aren't in road crews.

Hiremath, who is also on the RTA board, said it is time for a serious discussion and said he will support whatever the board decides.

"Part of what we have to do as municipal leaders is look at what is good for Oro Valley and our surrounding municipalities," he said.

Christy said voters just might be ready to approve a tax increase to pay for maintenance.

"There are divided camps on that. But the situation has gotten so bad that even though it's an anti-tax time in our community as well as our country, maybe the conditions are so bad that the citizenry of our region of Pima County would be willing to consider raising the tax, if they knew and trusted that it was going to go explicitly and solely for roads and road maintenance," he said.

Farhad Moghimi, executive director of the RTA, said it could take about two years to change the mission because the Legislature would have to approve, voters would have to approve and new bylaws, regulations and budgets would have to created.

"We wouldn't take revising the plan lightly. We would have to go through an extensive process before we would do anything like that," he said.

Discussions are starting

With so much interest, so much voter anger, so many tires going flat and so many candidates pushing for better roads, something is bound to happen soon.

"Waiting will only make it more costly," Bronson said. "We need to have a solution posthaste."

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