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Cunningham: Tucson residents pay too much, have too little say to re-up RTA

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Guest opinion

Cunningham: Tucson residents pay too much, have too little say to re-up RTA

  • Workers repave part of East Grant Road in 2015.
    City of TucsonWorkers repave part of East Grant Road in 2015.

In 2006, the voters of Pima County passed a law enabling the creation of a Regional Transportation Authority, as well as a half-cent excise (sales) tax to pay for transportation projects. The current RTA expires in 2026, which means it will soon be time for the voters to re-authorize the RTA and the tax.

Unless there are significant changes, I am opposed to reauthorization.

I say that knowing Ward 2 has benefited from the RTA. We have had big projects in the ward: Houghton Road, Kolb Road Extension and East Broadway to name a few. However, there are many things which concern me about the current structure of the RTA as well as how the next set of projects will be chosen.

As I noted, the RTA is funded through sales taxes, and those sales taxes are largely generated by Tucson. Tucson accounts for 62.5% of the revenue that funds the RTA. Those taxes would be either from Tucson residents or from folks from outside doing shopping or other business here, all of whom are using our streets or transit.

So, I would hope that roughly 62.5% of the projects in what is being called RTA Next would be in Tucson. Unfortunately, the process to decide the projects doesn’t leave a lot of hope about Tucson getting its fair share of projects.

Each jurisdiction within the RTA, which includes mostly communities much smaller than Tucson (Marana, Oro Valley, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Tohono O’Odham Nation, Sahuarita and the State Transportation Board), has been asked to submit $600 million in proposals for the list of projects that the RTA will fund. That’s right: Tucson is being asked to come up with the same dollar amount of proposals as communities like South Tucson and Oro Valley, which combined have less than a tenth of our population. That $600 million would account for a little less than a third of the revenue that the RTA will be expected to generate.

The $600 million ceiling limits the variety of projects we can submit for consideration and also punishes us for being a larger community with more expensive and complex needs. The Houghton Road project, for example, cost $161 million. You can see how a project or two of that size and scope would quickly eat away at that $600 million.

Another thing that my colleagues and I are concerned about is the structure of the RTA itself. Representation on the board of RTA is not based on population (Tucsonans are half of Pima County residents) nor is it in any way reflective of how much is contributed in tax money. Every entity on the RTA gets one vote. So the 541,482 people of Tucson have the same vote as the fewer than 30,000 people of Sahuarita.

As I said, my colleagues feel the same as I do.

We may, as a city, be better off implementing our own sales tax for transportation and mobility projects. It will give us more flexibility to address our needs, such as road repair, and do it in a way that’s more reflective of our values as a community.

Paul Cunningham represents Ward 2 on the Tucson City Council.

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