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Opinion

What the Devil won't tell you

Driven crazy: 'RTA Next' on life support as Tucson-area governments squabble

Pima County wants the Regional Transportation Authority to continue after it expires in 2026.

The Tucson City Council would also like voters to approve another round of transportation funding.

The smaller communities that make up the RTA believe the investment program that plans across the Tucson area should continue.

Everyone involved in the original plan, approved by voters in 2006, would like to see RTA Next approved by voters in the next couple years.

So, of course, the RTA is near death.

Everyone wants it. But there appears to be little desire among local governments to make concessions to keep it going. And that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that none of the concerns raised by any of the nine area governments that make up the RTA are crazy.

No one is asking for the stars, moon, or a hunk of Jupiter.

The city of Tucson doesn’t want to feel ignored when they represent more than half the taxpayers who fund the program. The smaller jurisdictions don’t want to be get run over by Tucson or Pima County.

All sides must come out of their bunkers and talk to each other to get done what they all say must get done, especially because all sides have reasonable concerns that can be honestly discussed. Ordering the pizzas for that meeting would be more of a zero-sum game.

It’s not happening.

Instead, there are threats, chest-pumping and a series of votes coming up that could doom the RTA’s future.

The Tucson City Council is prepared — perhaps as soon as the end of the month —  to say “no thanks” to RTA Next, without significant changes to how it operates. The RTA is set to approve a citizens advisory council, where Tucson is well represented.

If the City Council can take its voters with them, the RTA would face serious problems at the ballot box. The urban core is where support for a tax to address community needs is most reliable.

Meanwhile the city is ready to go back to voters and ask for reauthorization of a five-year sales tax to fix roads. The rest of the RTA community worries a city vote in May will doom an RTA reauthorization in 2026.

Koz is just

The City Council came up with a list of changes to the RTA Next plan last year, which Mayor Regina Romero summarized in a letter to the RTA and Pima Association of Governments executive director Farhad Moghimi.

The letter demanded more flexibility in how the projects roll out, proportional funding so Marana doesn't get the same amount as Tucson, funding for neighborhood streets and proportional voting that gives Tucson and Pima power commensurate with its size.

Moghimi's response can be summed up as "it's really early to be talking about this."

A year has gone by and Councilman Steve Kozachik said in an interview that a deal could probably be done if the RTA gave the city proportional voting to provide flexibility, and front-loaded RTA Next's planning with city projects because money promised back in 2006 may not be there at the end of the original 20-year plan for roads in Tucson. 

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Finally, he wanted Moghimi’s head on a spike (not literally, but a resignation will work).

Let’s take them in reverse order.

Kozachick says Moghimi, as the head staffer coordinating the RTA, has been working with the smaller jurisdictions to confound the city and keep its concerns from being taken seriously.

“Farhad has been unwilling to sit down at a table and hash this thing out,” Kozachik said.

Moghimi’s has his supporters, who point out that he is just a staffer following the schedule of work laid out to voters in 2006. That’s legit. 

On the other hand, no one should pretend the chief executive reporting to a board, council or commission can’t push their own agenda. They control the information flow, which is a fine way to steer their “bosses” toward a destination they feel is obviously intelligent.

In fact, if they don’t know how to do this, they aren’t qualified for the job because they lack the political skill to get things done. The job of members of boards, councils and commissions is to know when to use the staff’s expertise and when to say “yeah, we get it. Do it our way.”

That bring us to point two: The Tucson City Council is feeling like the RTA is going to short them on promised projects as time and money run out on the 20-year program.

Moreover, Kozachick points to the East Broadway widening as to why a multi-decade program should be provided flexibility. The traffic loads projected in the mid-00s didn’t arrive in the 2010s. The east-west thoroughfare didn’t need to be blown-out to eight lanes. The RTA could have saved $20 million if it had the flexibility to simply improved transit, bicycle and pedestrian traffic on Broadway.

I can see both sides here. Spending tens of millions on a project that turned out not to be needed has got to drive a rational mind like Kozachik crazy. It doesn’t seem smart. On the other hand, there’s a political wisdom to sticking with the promised program.

Meanwhile, inflation and failed revenue projects are squeezing out projects promised the city and so Tucsonans might lose out on some work they thought they had coming, Kozachik said.

The city wants any work not done in the current RTA to lead off the work done the next time.

Finally, there’s the proportional representation. There are nine governments on the RTA board and each get a vote. The Pascua Yaqui community and town of Sahuarita get the same number of votes as Pima County and the city of Tucson.

Then again, why would Marana and Oro Valley join a transportation authority just to get crushed beneath Tucson's wheels?

Again, both sides have points.

RTA Rex

Pima County Supervisor Rex Scott has come up with what seems like a good solution to the proportional representation problem.

Give the city’s representative on the PAG Governing Council, which overseas the RTA’s board, four votes and the county's three. That would establish a 7-7 split between the big boys and the more intimate communities. Neither side would be able to roll over the other. Deals would have to be cut.

“That way, we are going to have to reach out and get collaboration with the county and one other jurisdiction,” Kozachik said (and with city-county relations being on a virtual war footing, that’s no easy trick). “The same with (smaller governments). They would have to convince one of the big dogs on the sled to go their way.”

Unfortunately, Scott says those outlying communities prefer the current one-government, one-vote plan just fine.

“Where we are is trying to find that sweet spot," Scott said. "Where the city feels like it has the representation it should have for 54 percent of population. And the smaller jurisdictions feel like they have power, too.”

What Scott does point out though, is that the RTA board is about to appoint the panel that will come up with the RTA Next plan and that panel will be full of Tucson residents.

Tucsonans will have the power to mold the new transportation and transit program voters would consider. Then, if the plan flies with the public, the voter-approved to-do list would be plenty Tucson-friendly.

Still that would involve only the original plan. Broadway-type corrections would still be left to an oversight board run by the likes of Sahuarita and the Tohono O’Odham, which could stomp on the city's desire to change up the plan.

As far as Moghimi goes, Scott says he's had nothing but good experiences with the executive director and doesn't want to hold him accountable for divisions among the governments he reports to.

So Scott is sympathetic to the city of Tucson’s concerns. However, he questions the wisdom of a planned vote next week to put an expiring road tax back on the ballot in May.

It tells the RTA Tucson is gong its own way at the worst time, Scott said.

“The city didn’t help things by drawing that line in the sand,” Scott said.

Farhad and away

For his part, Moghimi clearly replied to my interview request first by pointing out the city of Tucson preferred to make the street car a priority early in the current plan and so their other projects were backloaded.

After that, his response was correspondence throughout the previous two years between the city of Tucson and the RTA and a report that appears to be authored by the whole RTA staff.

I point this out because I'm using the staff report that he didn't sign as his response to the city.

That's fine. I just feel a bit iffy quoting him with words he didn't attach his name to.

In so much as flexibility goes, the report favors specifics on deliverables that get delivered.

The RTA is funded by sales taxes and when the plan was developed in 2005, the authors did not envision a recession pulverizing sales tax revenues for nearly a decade. RTA Next must plan for at least one and maybe two recessions over a 20-year span.

“Research of other transportation tax initiatives nationwide shows voters seek more specificity for accountability in proposed long-term plans,” Moghimi wrote in a report this month given to the RTA. “This supports the RTA Board’s pledge to be accountable to the voters through public meetings and publishing annual reports of its revenues, expenditures, and progress.”

That would seem to show staff reluctance to the kind of flexibility the city wants, preferring to do things the way they've always been done with the RTA and the Pima Association of Governments. Read it to mean one jurisdiction, one vote: 

"Solving major cross-jurisdictional challenges requires a culture of collaboration and deep respect for diversity of opinions," the report states. "Historically, PAG and the RTA have operated successfully for the past 50 and 15 years, respectively, using a sincere collaborative approach to decision making."

Also, Moghimi raises a big-time problem with trying to get proportional representation. It would require a change in state law or approval of the governor.

Invoking the Gov. Doug Ducey or the state Legislature is enough to stop any Southern Arizona government enterprise in its tracks.

Most of the issues I’ve discussed are not partisan. They are parochial.

However, state lawmakers and Ducey’s calculation would be largely partisan. They tend to side with more conservative voters who populate Marana and Oro Valley – the very people empowered by an RTA decidedly unweighted voting.

Moghimi raises a legitimate concern. Regional transportation authorities exist because the Legislature passed a law in 2004 to allow them to exist and did so at Pima County’s behest. Having the more conservative elements in the county no doubt pushed that legislation into existence.

The Legislature would probably be amendable to a deal worked out by the different jurisdictions.

Park the RTA

None of what's been discussed sounds like a deal-breaker. Scott and Kozachik both told me there's a lot of room to negotiate.

So, why are they talking through letters, reports, columnists, op eds, public votes that rattle sabres and nine different lines in the sand? Everyone wants a deal done. Everyone’s got legitimate points. They all need to go into a room and work things out.

Communication is only part paying attention to what both parties say. It's just as important, if not more so, to figure out what the words mean. 

Is proportional representation necessary for the city? My guess is no. The city of Tucson wants to make damned sure the money doesn’t run out on them next time and the projects promised last time will get done. There are ways to do get it done through horse-trading.

Does Moghimi have to go? Probably not. He just needs to tell the city of Tucson “I hear you and I will come back with a plan to have the substance of your concerns addressed.” Then hash out with the city staff what that means.

Flexibility is easy enough to write into the bylaws if it's tied to technical reasons, like the actual traffic loads aren't materializing. I remind Tucson about the time in the 1990s when the Pima County Ssupervisors took bond program money away from improvements to 22nd Street to invest it South Tucson's neighborhood streets. The Council lost its mind when that happened.

Hey, if the city really wants to foster bikes, buses and pedestrians they shouldn't worry about more lane miles. It's bad for the climate anyway. It's better for the climate to move people around parts of town where transit isn't option with wider streets and maybe even grade-separated interchanges. Yes. I wrote it.

That's costlier.

I don’t buy that the city extending its road tax in 2022 means the RTA will tank at the polls in 2024 or 2025. The current city road tax passed with the RTA in place. The bigger threat to the RTA is if the question put to the voters asks for a full 1-cent increase in the sales tax. Given that the city already has one of the highest sales taxes in the country, that would seem a bridge too far.

I get the sense there’s a thought that with the new federal infrastructure bill, the city has less need for the RTA. Well, that depends ...

If the money follows the standard model and is funneled through Arizona Department of Transportation, Phoenix will get a monorail system and Tucson will get a sidewalk. The sidewalk will, no doubt, bypass Tucson.

There’s a wide field for all sides to maneuver into a deal for the RTA and all sides apparently want RTA Next to happen.

So get it done and stop posturing.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years, and as a communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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