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Should Pima County voters approve $200 million in road bonds?

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It's no secret that Pima County has some serious road problems.

A county report shows that bringing all the road in unincorporated Pima County back up to ideal condition would cost an estimated $268 million—and that's just for the streets that are outside the city limits of Tucson, Marana, Oro Valley and other local jurisdictions.

The signs are everywhere. Radio talk-show hosts complain every day about potholes. Constituents regularly give elected officials grief about the condition of the streets. And last year, a local blog reported that when Pima County Supervisor Ally Miller was inspecting a road in Marana, one pothole was so massive that she took a terrible tumble into it.

So when the county was putting the final touches on this year's bond proposal, Pima County supervisors decided to add $160 million in road repair and pavement preservation projects. While the final list of projects has not been nailed down, the repairs will be done both in unincorporated Pima County and within the various jurisdictions, with funding distributed based on how much taxpayers within each jurisdiction pay in property taxes.

Leaders in the business community back Prop 425, which also includes $30 million to begin planning and property acquisition for the proposed "Sonoran Corridor," a $90 million highway that's meant to link I-19 to I-10 and provide a quick link to both freeways for the county's new Aerospace Parkway near Raytheon. The county hopes to create an import/export hub to boost the high-tech corridor they hope to develop in Raytheon's neighborhood.

The other project in Prop 425 is a $10 million contribution to a $29 million widening of Science Park Drive (primarily serving the UA Science and Tech Park) between Kolb and Rita roads.

Ron Shoopman, the CEO of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, says the Sonoran Corridor project is "a potential job creator. We think it's an important step. Anything you can do to help your largest employer is always worth considering."

But the bigger deal is the $160 million for general road repairs, which Shoopman calls "an economic driver for the region."

While he didn't share specific numbers, Shoopman says that SALC did a survey to determine what kind of bonds Pima County voters would be likely to support and "without a doubt, the No. 1 issue was road repair."

Tucson Metro Chamber President & CEO Mike Varney says that chamber members have told him the same thing: "People want the roads fixed."

An informal survey of chamber members offered various options to pay for road improvements, ranging from bonds to an increased gas tax. Varney paraphrases the response that got the most votes: "It doesn't matter where you get the money, just go get the money."

"What I sense from that is that people are just sick and tired of bad roads and they want them fixed, no matter how they go about doing it," Varney says.

But the road bonds are not without critics. Joe Boogaart, the spokesman for the Taxpayers Against Pima Bonds Committee, agrees that Pima County's streets need repairs. "We do need the roads, I understand that, and we're not going to do it out of current revenue," Boogaart says. "It's going to have to come from somewhere else."

But he objects to using bonds to fund the work.

"My problem with the road bond is the way that they're funding it," says Boogaart, who would prefer to see county supervisors vote to approve a sales tax to pay for road improvements. (Huckelberry has several times tried to get supervisors to approve a sales tax so that property taxes could be lowered, but Republicans on the board have refused to go along.) Boogaart argues that bonding for the road repairs means that county taxpayers will have to pay interest on the resulting debt.

Even supporters of the bonds will say they'd rather raise gas taxes or find another user fee to cover the costs of roads rather than borrow money for road repairs. That's because, in general, bonds are used for projects that have a longer lifespan, such as libraries, sewer plants or parks. The basic idea is to borrow upfront money so that the community can take advantage of some kind of facility that has a long lifespan sooner rather than later and government can beat the cost of inflation, even if it has to pay some additional interest costs over time.

"Bonding is not typically used for road construction," Shoopman says. "However, in this case, the options that are available to us in this region to repair the roads that are in desperate need are limited."

For years, state lawmakers have refused to consider a gas-tax increase and have frequently diverted gas-tax funds that would have gone to counties, towns and cities in order to balance the state budget. County officials estimate that since 1991, the Legislature has diverted $1.5 billion from road projects to other expenses.

Meanwhile, a gridlocked Congress has been unable to find the votes to extend the federal Highway Trust Fund, which is on the edge of running out of funds.

"We were back in Washington last month," Shoopman says. "There's nothing coming out of Washington in the next few years. The state is clearly waiting on the economy to recover to have any money to invest on any scale. So cities across Arizona are looking at using bonding for significant road repair, which we believe is an economic development issue. If your roads are in good shape, businesses want to relocate along that corridor. If they look like a washboard and have potholes, it's a much harder sell."

Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson, a Democrat who has served on the board since 1997, says the bond package is "probably our only shot. It is the only tool in our toolbox because the federal government and the state government still hasn't come to an understanding that we need to revamp transportation funding, not only locally, regionally and statewide but nationally. We need to invest in infrastructure but it's going to mean finding new revenue streams."

Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll, a Republican who supports the bond proposal, echoes that argument. He has urged both federal and state officials to fund infrastructure projects, to no avail.

"I've been to all the other spots where we used to get funding and it's not forthcoming," Carroll says. "The Federal Highway Trust Fund is about to go broke and the people in Washington are not making any effort to fix it. There's this no-new-taxes mentality and now the state and the feds have completely starved us."

The situation is so dire that Varney doesn't know how roads will be repaired if the bond proposition fails.

"If this road bond doesn't pass, then what?" Varney says. "There is no 'then what.' There is no plan B."

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry plans to sell the $160 million in road repair bonds in the first six years of the bond program and pay off the debt within 10 years of issuing the bonds.

"It's on an accelerated payment schedule because these are pavement repairs and the minimal life is 10 years," Huckelberry says. "You really don't want to bond longer than the life of a project."

Varney praises Huckelberry's plan to rapidly repay the bonds. "They have set this up so that the road money would be paid back on a schedule so that the money will be paid back before the road themselves will need repair," he says.

Varney believes the city of Tucson has set a solid example with the road bond that voters narrowly passed in 2012, which has allowed the city to repave stretches of Speedway, Broadway, Grant, Kolb, 22nd Street and other major streets.

"We're critical of the city in a number of areas, because they deserve to be criticized," Varney says. "But the way they have handled the $100 million, to the best of my knowledge, has not only been doing exactly what they said they would do, but they have found a way to take the $100 million and do $140 million worth of road repairs."

Even bond opponent Boogaart says he has been impressed by what's he's seen of the city's work.

"I've driven down Grant since they worked on that, and I've been on a few other streets, so as far as the results, they're getting at it," Boogaart says. "And I understand they've stretched that money further, and if they're doing that, I can't say anything bad about that."

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