RTA's technical committee rejected pushing 1st Ave work to 'RTA Next'
John M. Bernal, P.E., and Curtis C. Lueck, PhD, P.E., are co-chairs of the Project Review Task Force of the Regional Transportation Authority’s Technical Management Committee.
On Sunday, August 28, the Tucson Sentinel published a guest opinion submitted by the Complete Streets Coordinating Council, regarding sorely needed improvements to 1st Avenue between Grant Road and River Road. Unfortunately, the opinion included an incomplete representation of actions by the Regional Transportation Authority’s Technical Management Committee and its Project Review Taskforce, which we co-chair.
The taskforce did find that reconstructing the road to a contemporary four-lane arterial versus the six-lanes approved in the RTA Plan maintains the arterial’s functionality and saves on construction costs. We did recommend additional public involvement through the RTA to support the efforts of the city of Tucson. And finally, we recommended “moving the project to RTA Next,” primarily at staff’s request.
Our taskforce reports to the entire Technical Management Committee, which accepted our recommendations, except for the suggestion of moving the project into the next RTA plan. The TMC voted unanimously to reject that recommendation, including both of us co-chairs. The rejection of that idea was discussed and reasserted at two subsequent meetings.
Much of the confusion now surrounds the careless use of the term “moving a project to RTA Next” and similar wording.
Behind this expression are the simple facts that there is inadequate RTA sales tax revenue to complete RTA1 (the voter approved 2006 plan) without significant changes to realign costs and revenues.
The approved project list and financial plan relied on aggressive forecasts that the half-cent sales tax would generate $2.1 billion, valued in 2006 dollars. It also relied on construction costs estimates from 2006 which are off target today.
Due to the Great Recession and then the pandemic, our economy slowed and shifted. Sales tax revenues declined sharply. The estimate of revenues now, again in 2006 dollars, is about $1.6 billion. This is almost 25 percent less than predicted. In today’s dollars, the shortfall is roughly $700,000,000, which is being partially offset by dedicating other regional funds to RTA1, and in so doing, revising the original financial plan.
We noticed that our RTA is not alone in its struggle to fulfill voter expectations. Arizona’s other two RTAs in Pinal County and Maricopa County have their challenges as well. Pinal RTA’s voter-approved sales tax was invalidated by the Arizona Supreme Court recently. Now, the $82 million in total revenue collected since 2017 must be paid back to the businesses that collected and paid the tax. Pinal will ask voters to reapprove the sales tax this November. In Maricopa County, a bill to allow a 25-year extension of its plan was approved by the legislature, and then summarily vetoed by Gov. Doug Ducey. Their board of directors will need to regroup after this setback.
The current RTA Board is trying hard to make the RTA1 plan a success. However, they are constrained by decisions of prior boards to press ahead and not even consider sending the plan back to the voters to approve changes that would realign revenues and expenses.
Whether state law requires voter approval of such plan changes is up for debate and not for us to say. But we did notice what looks like a rugby scrum, with the RTA staff and some local jurisdictions pushing and pulling to move the ball forward. Yet another committee, the Citizens Accountability for Regional Transportation is tasked with oversight of RTA1 plan’s implementation, and has been since its inception. The CART, too, could inform the RTA Board of their thoughts on how to successfully complete RTA1.
We’re all in this together to make RTA1 a success and encourage voter support of RTA Next. But the solution for maintaining a successful and ongoing RTA is not to simply “move the project to RTA Next."