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Too Many Meetings? 

After the RTA head freezes planning funds, Mayor Bob Walkup questions his authority

The back-and-forth between the city of Tucson and the Regional Transportation Authority over roadway-project funding is starting to resemble last week's record-breaking Wimbledon tennis match.

However, that Wimbledon match took three days to decide—while this series of volleys may take three months to resolve.

Gary Hayes, the RTA's executive director, began the tussle with a June 1 letter that declared a temporary suspension of RTA funding for some projects. He based this decision in part on "disturbingly high rates of soft (i.e. design and planning) cost expenditure."

In a recent interview, Hayes elaborates: "The last six to nine months, we've been running a little behind schedule (with some roadway projects) and a little over budget. The three engineers on the RTA board asked why."

As a result, Hayes commissioned a study to look at soft-cost expenditures; he anticipates the study will be completed by September.

The goal of the report, Hayes indicates, is "a concrete set of policies on soft costs." He says that soft costs could be restricted to 15 to 30 percent of a total project's budget.

"There could be X public meetings," Hayes explains, "and the (implementing government) would be on their own dime after that."

The temporary soft-cost-funding stoppage impacts some planning efforts for projects being implemented by the city, Pima County and town of Marana, with construction slated to begin by 2016. Both the city and county have arranged temporary funding sources to keep the planning efforts going, while Marana has suspended work on its project.

The RTA would normally reimburse these governments for the planning work under terms of an approved intergovernmental agreement. However, that has stopped for now.

Hayes doesn't think the study will show the RTA has paid for any inappropriate soft-cost items—but if the study does, the RTA could ask for repayment.

A few weeks ago, the Tucson City Council harshly shot back at Hayes regarding the funding freeze. Mayor Bob Walkup, a member of the RTA board of directors, even questioned Hayes' authority to issue the edict.

In a June 23 letter, Hayes responded that he was confident he had the authority, "particularly given the gravity of the project scope and funding issues we are finding."

One funding issue may involve the city's extensive land-use planning efforts regarding road-widening projects, which require a lot of public input.

City transportation director Jim Glock defends those expenditures, saying that these land-use planning studies are needed. "It's a component of the RTA administrative code, and in the past, we didn't appreciate the land-use/transportation connection like we should have."

On the other hand, Hayes questions the number of meetings that are organized, promoted and run by city consultants—and all paid for with RTA funds. Hayes says he believes some people are trying to use the public process to scuttle the projects entirely.

"The city wants to hold meetings after meetings after meetings," Hayes says. "How many meetings do you have to have? The RTA is about regional mobility, not neighborhood preservation. That would be nice, but it's not our focus."

Hayes has pointed specifically at the city's 22nd Street project from Tucson Boulevard to Interstate 10. That project is broken into two components. The first includes an overpass at Kino Parkway, and improvements east of there to Tucson Boulevard. Design work on this phase is underway, and construction should begin next summer.

Planning for the other part of the 22nd Street project—from Interstate 10 to Kino Parkway—has also been ongoing, with work done on traffic and circulation analysis, drainage assessment and historic-property inventory.

This phase of the work, however, was put on hold in October. The stoppage, in part, was caused by public demands for analysis of the project's social impacts.

"We're getting requests for studies outside the project's scope of work, and don't know if the RTA would fund them," Glock says. Proponents of the studies, though, have applied for grant funding to pay for them.

The city has already spent more than $3.6 million on planning and design-consultant work and other soft costs for the $108 million 22nd Street project.

Meanwhile, the verbal volleys between the city and Hayes may resume shortly. On July 1, the RTA board is scheduled to meet. That will provide Walkup with an opportunity to question Hayes' authority to suspend the planning funds.

Six days later, on July 7, the City Council will consider expanding the use of construction impact fees to include two projects affected by Hayes' decision, so the planning work can continue.

When approved by voters in 2006, the RTA included a total of $1.5 billion for 35 roadway projects. However, local governments have a history of over-promising and under-delivering regarding roadwork. For example, almost 30 percent of the projects listed in Pima County's 1997 road-bond proposal will most likely not be built, or will have to be paid for partially by RTA money. (See "Your Tax Dollars," Aug. 2, 2007.)

Hayes says the ultimate issue for him is keeping the RTA's commitment to implement all of the projects promised to voters. "We're adhering religiously to the ballot language," he says.

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