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What the Devil won't tell you

Not asking for trouble: RTA stab at seeking public input looks like a road to nowhere

I’m all for public input when it comes to affairs of state.

Sometimes elected leaders can use citizens groups as human shields on sensitive issues so they can outsource the really hard decisions to other well-respected people about town. Then when a “Blue Ribbon Commission” floats an idea the voters hate, the council member or supervisor can claim a reasonable case of spineless deniability.

The Regional Transportation Authority’s program 1.0 is winding down. The MySpace-era plan to approach Tucson’s traffic challenges regionally and comprehensively was a 20-year plan passed by voters in 2006.

And holy starting gun, Batman. Local leaders are taking action to re-up right now and they want your help. I think. I can't tell by the questions they are asking.

They are, through Sunday, conducting an online survey  to start the planning the plan to plan. It will be the work of a a 35-person panel who will rely on the public's sentiments to start the process out on the right side of the voter.  Unfortunately, their stab at public input is all about magic ponies and happy thoughts.

That would be fine, I guess, but the plan is to use these survey results to inform a draft plan for the next round of the Tucson-area's transportation planning. So we may have a problem.

The quality of the answers is important and the quality of the questions ... I don't want to say suck because I'm afraid I have old friends who worked on it. They "duck"; as in duck the real answers.

It's not the end of the world. It can be fixed down the road. It's just that things can go sideways in a hurry on these programs and it's rough finding out on Election Day.

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Let's take a look:

Strongly disagree

The survey's problem is in its format. It starts with a very basic question and then provides multiple answers that seem to be beside the point.

Question 1. A future RTA plan should prioritize regionally significant transportation needs and focus on regional projects.
Strongly agree
Agree
Neither agree nor disagree
Disagree
Strongly disagree

So, to be clear. What’s being asked is if a Regional Transportation Authority future plan should authoritatively put a priority on regional transportation. I guess the question is “which region?”

So, I strongly agree, only if the region is limited to Manhattan, Kan.

What the hell are they going to learn from that question? They aren’t asking if a regional transportation plan is a good idea. They are saying “if we have a regional plan, should it be regional?”

Who is going to strongly disagree with the transportation equivalent to "puppy dogs?"

It doesn't get better.

"2. A future RTA plan should include an implementation timeline and identify specific projects."

I strongly disagree. Clearly a thoughtful RTA plan would just spray pavement from a hastily reconfigured wood chipper. Where it lands, it lands. That’s now Ally Miller Boulevard.

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But wait, there's more.

"3. A future RTA plan should identify an implementation budget that matches projected excise tax revenues and local funding commitments."

Hold on there, Sparky. Just cool your jets. So if I’m picking up what you are laying down, the plan calls for “professionals” and “so-called experts” to hatch a conspiracy empowering Deep Staters to determine a project cost and then assign a funding source. You can pry my “STRONGLY DISAGREE” out of my cold dead fingers.

Just T-shirt cannon the cash into the crowd at McKale Center.

*4. A future RTA plan must enhance the regional transportation system's overall efficiency and contribute to improved mobility, accessibility, safety, economic vitality and sustainability in the region.

I’m not sure if I agree or disagree. If Pima County residents are going to have a Regional Transportation Plan, does it make sense to have it involve our mobility and economic vitality? I’m thinking wombats. What have we done to truly optimize the sustainability of the local wombat population? When was the last time you looked around and said, “There are too many damn wombats!”?

So until I get more information about Australian fauna, I’m going to withhold judgment.

Easy goals

Questions seven through 15 follow the same “Strongly agree to disagree” pattern but in rapid-fire fashion to game out goals.

Should a regional transportation plan have a goal to: Improve cross-town mobility? Reduced congestion (not making this up); Improve transit ridership; Reduce crashes at intersections (where would we prefer them?); and, of course, reduce wildlife-related accidents.

Yes, the RTA wants to know if we should work to avoid hoof-related wrecks. I don’t know how many snake-related pile-ups we have to endure before we say enough is enough! I strongly agree.

Asking who strongly disagrees isn’t a half-bad way to plumb the anger. What is it that would motivate opposition? The problem is, that most of the concepts they are testing are the necessary components of any transportation system.

Cross-town mobility is as necessary to a regional approach as providing work place access. Everything has to be paid for and none of it can be done on an ad hoc basis.

It’s hard enough to get people to go find the survey that seems to underpin the public’s thoughts on a multi-billion dollar question to voters. Don't blow it mining public good will to gauzy ideas.

Even with three commas in the figure, capital programs with limited resources involve trade-offs. So maybe gauge public priorities. This versus that. Where does neighborhood street repair rank against providing faster access from Tanque Verde to Downtown. Which is more important? Mass transit or widening arterials?

Why are we discussing a transportation plan that could likely run from the late 2020s into the 2040s without discussing climate change? I know some of you would rather feed your young to my wombat friends than admit a Lib was right about anything, but this is now observable science. The effects of the climate crisis are going to be trampling Tucson over the next 25 years. Florida doesn't need your permission to become Doggerland.

The survey does nothing to get the public to think about transportation reality. It just asks them to react to broad concepts.

Good question, poorly phrased

The RTA folks do have a couple good questions if you know the subject.

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5. A future RTA plan should consider future land use, travel patterns, mode choices and technological advances.
Strongly agr … you get the idea.

On the surface, this may seem less obviously important. If I’ve just answered “STRONGLY AGREE” to the first four fluffy questions, I might say “meh,” here, just to prove I’m paying attention.

However, I can’t. I was forced to learn otherwise.

I once all but duct-taped myself inside the Flagstaff traffic engineer’s office for two days getting a crash course in vehicular flow. I just happen to know that this question is the ballgame because I was forced to learn The Twelve-Vehicle-Trips-Per-Single-Family-Detached Gospel.

Land use equals traffic congestion. The way it usually works is that a developer will build a project and so long as they don’t need a zoning change, they won’t be on the hook for offsite traffic improvements. One big development typically begets two and then four until a way-out-of-town joint like L’il Abners is surrounded by terra-cotta tile.

One idea the county has been pushing as long as I’ve been covering local government, is to front-load the public investment to drive the private development. It’s why the current RTA includes plans to blow Houghton Road out to six lanes from Valencia to Tanque Verde before its swamped with strip malls and subdivisions. More to the point, to propel development on the far East Side and away from the more sensitive desert habitats.

Should we do this? Or should the community focus on infill. Infill would mean higher-density development in central Tucson and with it, taller buildings and more traffic in existing neighborhoods. That’s the price of reducing sprawl.

Money question

6. A future RTA plan must spell out long-term maintenance funding commitments secured from each responsible jurisdiction in the taxing district prior to plan approval.

This is huge, too. But information is missing.

I once watched professional wallflower of a city engineer transform into an evangelical preacher on the subject of road maintenance. This guy typically treated eye contact like the MRSA virus. Yet there he was going all fire-and-brimstone  on the mayor “the fires of hell await the sinner who would eschew the passion of chipsealing! For the price you pay for ignoring almighty erosion is your eternal revenue stream!”

He damned near stroked out but he got his money. And I got the religion. 

When money gets tight, governments have a nasty habit of short-changing relatively inexpensive street maintenance, treating it as a luxury. Erosion keeps happening and the cheap fix turns into an expensive rebuild. It’s like refusing to change the oil in the Camry because of a lack of funds. It’s not a tough choice. It’s a dumb choice.

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I've bitched about it and suggested this very idea — or something close — depending the concept they are being vague about.

Creaky foundation

The Regional Transportation Authority doesn’t want a repeat of 2015, when voters smashed numerous county bond proposals to bits in an act of wrath.

So it's good that they are asking for public opinion early. That’s smart.

But it’s also important to be straight with voters because changing the status quo is always costly and controversial.

What major roadway project won’t Tucson fund to buy more neighborhood traffic calming measures and vice-versa?

And sometimes it means revisiting old bloody fights. Do we want a freeway? Do we want light rail? Are we ready to revisit grade-separated interchanges so traffic doesn’t have to cross paths every time two road alignments intersect? Is it really going to turn us into Los Angeles if Grant Road submarines under Campbell Avenue? Is that really the equivalent of the 405? Quietly and frustratingly: I don’t think so.

The community involvement phase must gauge public opinion. That means asking the right questions. We don't need them saying "the public loves every idea but considering land use."

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for 20 years and also worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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Pima County

The Regional Transportation Authority's survey asking the wrong questions and could lead to a faulty foundation.