Will mass-transit improvements get shortchanged in the city's sales-tax campaign?

Street Sweep 

Will mass-transit improvements get shortchanged in the city's sales-tax campaign?

A draft report from a citizen committee studying Tucson transportation options suggests the bulk of money collected from a half-cent hike in the sales tax should be spent on roads, including three grade-separated intersections that will cost roughly $50 million.

The committee, appointed by the Tucson City Council in September to review transportation options for the city's neglected streets, may recommend as little as 12 percent of the sales tax revenues be spent on mass transit, leaving Sun Tran with little opportunity for improvement.

"Unless something really unusual happens, as I read the tea leaves, that's the way it's going to go," says Stan Abrams, the longtime local developer appointed to the committee by Mayor Bob Walkup.

If city voters approve the half-cent increase in the sales tax, the city would have an estimated $40 million a year for transportation spending for the next 10 years. Earlier this year, city officials estimated that Tucson needed $520 million to meet minimum standards for arterial corridors, residential streets, sidewalks and streetlights. The city's five-year capital improvement budget had $32 million available for these kinds of projects.

To get the sales-tax question before voters in May 2002, the city council must discuss the recommendation at its meeting this Monday, December 3, give staff one week to make any changes, and approve ballot language by December 10.

Unless the citizen committee makes significant changes this week, it will recommend the bulk of the new spending--somewhere around 50 percent--be on "congestion management," which includes adding additional lane miles, streetlights, sidewalks, bus pull-outs and right-turn lanes at intersections.

That portion of the plan includes roughly $50 million--or about 12 percent of all money collected over 10 years--on the construction of three grade-separated--or, in 21st-century parlance, "continuous flow"--intersections at the corners of Campbell and Grant; 22nd Street and Kino Boulevard; and Grant, Kolb and Tanque Verde roads. Under current interpretation of the city's Neighborhood Protection Amendment, those continuous-flow intersections would have to be approved individually by voters after their design.

The remainder of the sales tax money--somewhere around 35 to 40 percent--would be spent on "deferred maintenance," including repair of residential and major streets and maintenance of landscaping and drainage corridors.

City transportation officials were hopeful earlier this week that the committee would increase the slice going to transit at its final meeting Wednesday night, but said they didn't expect it to rise above 20 percent, or about $8 million a year.

If the committee sticks with the 12 percent figure, mass transit would get an additional $4.8 million a year, which would do little to improve the service, according to Albert Elias, a deputy director with the city's transportation department.

"Basically, you'd be able to protect the existing service level, deal with the increases that occur each year from fuel and labor and that kind of thing, and strengthen some of the core Sun Tran routes," says Elias. "But you really wouldn't be able to go into new unserved areas with that 12 percent."

That's a potential problem for the committee because the draft report calls for later evening hours, more weekend service and smaller shuttles to serve new routes. Mayor Walkup and city council members have stressed the importance of delivering on promises made during the sales-tax campaign.

An empty pitch to transit may spark opposition from some quarters toward the sales tax, which may be a hard sell regardless if a national recession continues to weaken the economy. Two previous countywide efforts to enact a half-cent sales tax for transportation have been rejected by voters. In 1986, the proposition was shot down by 57 percent of voters; in 1990, 61 percent nixed it. (A quarter-cent sales-tax proposal to build and operate new jails was rejected in 1994 by 70 percent of the voters.)

As part of its "Let's Go, Tucson" campaign, which has cost $313,000 so far, the city has polled 400 voters to gauge support for a sales-tax increase. Support for the proposition spiked when voters were promised the money would be spent quickly and on specific projects, with 26 percent saying they'd definitely support a tax and another 41 percent saying they'd probably support a sales tax. On the other side, 14 percent said they wouldn't support a tax, while another 16 percent said they probably wouldn't.

In the same poll, city voters ranked improved mass transit among top priorities.

A similar survey, filled out by roughly 16,000 people at malls, public meetings and other events, showed city residents were more concerned about residential streets, sidewalks and better transit, while people outside the city limits wanted to see freeways and better intersections. The split is hardly surprising, given that people outside the city are likely to have longer commutes.

How the council will structure the final package remains to be seen, but at least three council members are unhappy with the small slice for mass transit.

"It's not enough," says Ward 5's Steve Leal, who says he'd like to see at least half the tax spent on transit, arguing that would benefit the people hit hardest by the regressive sales tax.

Ward 1 Councilmember José Ibarra says mass transit should get at least a third of the new dollars generated by the sales tax. He's opposed to using sales-tax funds to build grade-separated intersections.

Ward 2 Councilmember Carol West says she'd like to see transit increased to at least 20 percent of the package.

"I want to see more," West says. "We can't not improve the transit system. When it comes to the council, we have to take a hard look at that and get it up to something more realistic."

Ward 4 Councilmember Shirley Scott said she was open to increasing transit, as long as the funds didn't come from dollars targeted toward repairing residential streets.

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