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A closer look at the RTA Next draft plan

The Tucson agenda

A closer look at the RTA Next draft plan

Pima County dives into initial appearances & Buffalo Soldiers, plus more in local gov't meetings this week

  • A look at the roadwork projects in the draft RTA plan would suggest Tucson is doing OK in the fight for projects.
    City of TucsonA look at the roadwork projects in the draft RTA plan would suggest Tucson is doing OK in the fight for projects.

RTA Next is maybe moving toward some sort of fruition, if the Tucson City Council allows it.

The Regional Transportation Authority was established with a 2006 election, and the half-cent sales tax financing $2 billion in spending on roads will expire in 2026. The city has been a stick in the mud, hemming and hawing about whether it will join the nine jurisdictions that make up the RTA's ranks for another go. The City Council has wanted a greater say than one of nine votes on the board developing the RTA Next plan.

I've made cursory mention of the project list over the last few months as the city brings it up study session after study session.

However, there's been some movement when I've been summarizing and it's worth a gander.

The Tucson City Council will get a rundown on the list of nearly $1.3 billion in projects this week. Last time we reported, the wish list was $4.5 billion. 

Of the 37 projects onthe list of roadway upgrades, 21 of them have been requested by the city of Tucson and they are projected to cost the most.

This includes a $71 million "corridor modernization" of East Speedway from North Alvernon Way to North Wilmot Road. There's also a similar $67 million upgrade to 22nd Street from South Alvernon Way to South Camino Seco,

But wait, there's more... (there's almost always more).

One Arizona Department of Transportation project not listed as "Tucson" would definitely affect the urban core. It's a $344 million proposal to extend Aviation Parkway down South Palo Verde Road and along East Ajo Way to Interstate 10. The management team is iffy about this project but included it on the list, anyway.

The City Council has been threatening to bolt the RTA if it feels like it's being treated as just one of nine jurisdictions and not the region's center of human gravity. On the other hand, the smaller towns and tribal communities have feared Tucson will be sucking all the money into it like a black hole. 

This compromise, on the surface, looks about right. Maybe ...? 

The priorities fall into four main categories: $1.45 billion for roadways and multi-modal transit facilitating bikes, busses and pedestrians; $510 million for transit; $110 million for environmental and $100 million each for safety and debt service. 

It's not beyond griping about. But what is?

Just as a dork (lacking geek expertise) myself on these matters, I would have included a pavement protection element so economic downturns don't swallow up road maintenance budgets and I'm looking at that debt service figure thinking "that looks awfully low" given where interest rates are headed.

I also thought it would be smart to include a bigger chunk of change for climate action. 

Then the city went and got smart on me and has negotiated a deal with Tucson Electric Power for such considerations to be included in a franchise agreement allowing the utility continued access to rights of way for service lines and maintenance. It's big on climate policy.

The Council will be voting to set a franchise election for May 16, so voters can ratify the agreement. 

It includes a 0.75 percent surcharge on TEP's gross revenues to provide for "climate resiliency." 

Sweet move.

The Council needs to get the the election on the calendar now, even though they don't have a final agreement in hand.

Jobs, jobs, jobs ... 

Two economic development agreements are also set for a final Council vote and both represent the possibilities of the emerging economy powered by energy technology and not energy as a natural resource. 

One is an agreement with a power storage manufacturer, Scion Energy, to lease a property at 6950 S. Country Club Rd. for expanded production.

The company plans on adding 25 new jobs expected to add $450,000 in additional city revenue over five years in exchange for $278,000 in sales tax breaks.

The other involves American Battery Factory, which pledges to build a souped-up, $1.2 billion futuristic, pop-up plant making lithium iron phosphate batteries. 

ABF is promising 1,000 jobs in Tucson, with $9 million in anticipated five-year revenues in exchange for a one-sales tax break of $4 million.

Both projects represent Tucson's entry into a new industry rising from innovations in energy technology. That's a good thing. But this is American Battery's first plant. 

For readers who still have PTSD over World View Syndrome and are wary of big, bold promises in nouveau projects like "space balloons" ... I feel ya.

The Council will also get an update during the afternoon work session on efforts to connect the unsheltered with services and how to protect the community from some of the more unsavory people who are living on the streets.

Helping keep them off the streets in the first place is one way to do it: by building – or allowing to be built – enough rental units to house the unhoused.

Yet this issue is becoming a major pain for fair-minded people of all stripes. Truthfully, I'm shocked people are shocked.

Income inequality has long been a problem in the U.S., and Tucson has always been a low-wage town. Arizona prides itself on being a low-tax, low-service state. Then rents increase by 40 percent in a year two years and people are surprised to find homelessness is a problem as services are unavailable.

Then we are more stunned to find the unhoused are homo sapiens who still discharge bodily functions and without access to showers in an Arizona summer, they start to smell and look funny.

What the hell did we think was going to happen? 

Actually, I think I know the answer. People have been known to believe they, themselves, work and slave so the government can steal their money and lavish it on the poor. Hit poverty and hit the jackpot. There's a treasure trove of cash and prizes paid for by Raytheon engineers that the poor can't wait to get their grubby mitts on.

No such money exists. Well, it doesn't exist on the streets.

Someone might want to find out how much of Raytheon's haul from taxpayers ends up as Defense Department vaporware (planes that never fly, missiles that never launch) as Congress uses the military budget as a jobs program for white Republican engineers.

That felt good. What was I writing about?

Initial here 

Now, over on the Pima County agenda, the Board of Supervisors is ready to take up initial criminal court appearances for the umpteenth time in the past year.

The Pima County Superior Court has contracted with the Tucson City Court to handle that first appearance for all those arrested under the county's jurisdiction. It's turned into a long and drawn-out power struggle of sorts as the board kicked the idea around during five 2022 meetings.

Yet the deal on the table would seem to settle things.

County Administrator Jan Lesher wants the board to approve this deal with five conditions meant to balance the rights of those accused of nickel and dime offenses seeking bail without returning to the streets people suspected of more violent offenses.

Supervisors will also be voting on Lesher's recommendation to  establish a blue ribbon committee to recommend changes to meet the needs of Pima County Jail.

Supervisors are also being asked to support the changing of the name of the Military Electronic Test Range at Fort Huachuca to the Buffalo Soldier Test Range of Fort Huachuca.

Buffalo Soldiers were African-American troops who served between the Civil War and the Cold War, finding a degree of station and equality in the still-segregated U.S. Army.

It's a bit vexatious from a social justice standpoint because, as the Smithsonian Institute puts it on their website: "Black soldiers used military service as a strategy to obtain equal rights as citizens. Paradoxically, they sought to achieve this by engaging in government-led wars meant to overtake the Southwest and Great Plains from Native Americans."

So there's that. African Americans didn't exactly have abounding options at the time, so we cut them some slack.

Maj. Gen. Anthony Hale is seeking from the state permission to change the name. Ugh. God. Here we go with "woke general" talk. Why can't we be more like the Russian military juggernaut?

Then there's a super-massive contract for $63 million dollars with to provide computer licensing and support services to Pima County. IBM will get a five-year, $17.5 million deal to be the county's IT guys and California cloud firm Workday, Inc., will get a 15-year, $45 million software licensing deal if supervisors approve the "master agreement." Another half million is marked "contingencies.

Sahuarita fire service

Rural Metro Fire Department has notified the Town of Sahuarita that it will no longer provide protection for residents.

So the town council will vote on handing over all of its territory to the Green Valley Fire Department. 

The town will also vote on approving a $560,000 deal with WSM architects to remodel the Police Department headquarters.

'Failing schools,' old scores

The Tucson Unified School District Governing Board will discuss, during a private meeting with lawyers, a lawsuit brought by former Pueblo High School principal Augustine Romero.

Romero's contract was not renewed in 2017, after a dust-up over grade changes Romero had approved. He filed a suit claiming that he was let go because of his race and his advocacy of Latino students. 

The district will also take up a proposed deal with Pima Community College to allow their students to gain practical experience at TUSD's Health Services Department.

Nine TUSD schools received D's or F's from the state of Arizona. Those schools require an improvement plan be developed and subject to a public meeting within 30 days of getting the news.

The school board is being asked to delegate its authority to hold the meeting to site councils representing the struggling schools. It doesn't have time to hold nine meetings in 30 days.

These schools are Blenman, Booth-Fickett; Doolen, Manzo, Safford, Steele and Tully elementary schools, as well as Pistor and Valencia middle schools.

The Arizona Board of Education grades schools based on year-over-year improvement and scores on aptitude tests. One year does not a failing school make, no matter what Arizona Revised Statutes says because a majority of lawmakers decided to establish such a decree.

I'll suggest the first item on each school's improvement plan should be: "Don't have a pandemic."

The district will also review all contracts for employees. There are a bunch of them. Your trusty columnist took a look and the only thing that's changing is the years rolling over. 

Vail pay raise

The Vail Unified School District will vote on a three-percent pay hike for district employees to take effect this fiscal year.

This is an across-the-board raise that will cost the district $3 million. The money will come from the district's operating budget and other funds, including all-day preschool classes.

It happens in a teacher shortage.

The board will also review the district's incentive pay package, that rewards teachers who take initiatives to build better relationships with parents, develop new curriculum and seek leadership positions.

The Tanque Verde Unified School District will discuss an audit of federal grant funds performed by Tucson accounting firm Heinfield Meech and Co., at the behest of the Arizona Auditor General's Office.

It is a mind-numbing document and I won't quote it because I'm not a war criminal. What I figured out was that the district got whacked because they didn't monitor whether business they contracted with were sketchy characters.

The federal government has a requirement that potential vendors were suspended or debarred. Debarment, or "bad boy" rules prohibit government from dealing with firms that have checkered legal pasts.

The auditors determined the district financial folks didn't have a policy to follow this rule.

The bean counters say they're on it now.

New courses

Students at Flowing Wells Unified School District would have access to a couple new vocational courses, if approved by the Governing Board on Tuesday.

The district will vote on adding a course to certify new court interpreters and another that would move students further along the path of getting a welding certification (Welding II, so I'm assuming there's Welding I). 

There's also a proposed AP Pre-Calculus course offered by the College Board. It's not Ethnic Calculus so the state should be OK with it. I've never taken calculus so I can't vouch as to whether it's non-binary ... (see, that's a math joke).

Students in the Catalina Foothills Unified School District will have to follow a 21-unit path to graduation, that includes four years each of Math, English and Social Studies, plus 3 years of science. Students also must show two year's proficiency in Spanish or Chinese.

The district is also tweaking the math requirement to allow for an AP course in pre-calc and has done a total rethink of the English program. Now, 9th grade English will focus on coming-of-age stories, 10th grade will investigate the individual in society as depicted in literature like "The Hunger Games," 11th grade will discuss the American experience through non-white perspectives (Legislature, start your engines) and 12th graders get a panoply of choices about literature they want to pursue.

Gone are the days of Dickens and Shakespeare, it looks like. That's fine. Shakespeare is a playwright. Why were students forced to read him? It's like studying Mozart by reading sheet music. Go see the play. Dickens? My generation couldn't deal with Victorian writing. This generation would only suffer ceaseless and understandable triggering over the tedious detail.

Lights of Nogie

The Nogales City Council will vote on whether to send unused stadium lights to the city's Sonora side. 

The Arizona city removed the lights and replaced them with newer illumination. Now they've got spares and the Mexican neighbors could use them.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist, who worked in daily journalism for nearly 25 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party.

The Tucson agenda

Public meetings around Tucson this week:

Sahuarita Town Council

Pima County Board of Supervisors

Tucson City Council

Tucson Unified School District Governing Board

Flowing Wells Unified District Governing Board

Catalina Foothills Unified School District

Nogales City Council

Tuesday, 6 p.m., regular meeting

Vail Unified School Unified District Governing Board

Tanque Verde Unified School District Governing Board

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