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The Regional Transportation Authority celebrates five years since voter approval

The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) publicly gives itself an A+ for its performance since voters created it five years ago. About 400 RTA backers gathered on Monday, May 16, to hear short speeches and watch a series of slick videos that showed, as Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup declared: "We're right on schedule."

Critics, however, give it a D- in both concept and financing.

Back in 2006, attorney Bill Risner said about the 20-year, $2.1 billion RTA plan and the associated half-cent sales-tax increase: "This is a 'growth' plan supported by the 'growth lobby.'"

Risner urged a no vote, arguing: "We need a realistic growth plan for the certain future of expensive gasoline."

Five years later, Risner's opinion hasn't changed.

"Their view was we needed to prepare for another million people on the periphery," Risner now says about RTA supporters back in 2006. "My view was ... that we should concentrate on the inside of the community. Turns out I was right. How's growth looking now?"

On the other hand, Gary Hayes, executive director of the RTA, says his agency's mobility program has been an unqualified success. "We've fulfilled what the voters asked us to do," he says proudly.

Hayes points to the 11 roadway projects planned for the first five years. "All 11 are completed or under construction," he reports.

The few completed projects include a Twin Peaks Road and Interstate 10 interchange in Marana, and a new Interstate 19 frontage road in Green Valley.

Several other first-phase projects are scheduled to begin shortly. Some improvements in the city are on this list, including the controversial Kolb Road extension.

In addition to roadways, the RTA plan called for numerous safety improvements, including 40 intersection upgrades and 200 bus pullouts to be installed over 20 years.

So far, 39 pullouts have been completed—20 inside the Tucson city limits, and 13 in unincorporated Pima County. The city's Department of Transportation anticipates finishing another 20 by the end of the year.

As for intersection improvements, the city has implemented 15, with two more in the works. Pima County has done 13.

Both Jim Glock, Tucson's director of transportation, and Priscilla Cornelio, transportation director for Pima County, believe the progress to date has been extraordinary. "Unbelievable," declares Glock, while Cornelio says it's been "fabulous."

In the "environmental and economic vitality" component of the RTA plan, Hayes' agency lists numerous accomplishments. These include 48 greenway, pathway, bikeway and sidewalk projects.

The final element of the plan—public-transit improvements—has included lots of money spent on increasing Sun Tran bus service. Within three years of the RTA's passage, those extra services helped elevate the annual system ridership from just more than 17 million to more than 21.5 million.

But since 2009, the number of passengers has been falling, with the current annual figure projected to be less than 20 million.

Hayes thinks increasing Sun Tran ridership will require changes. "To improve (the numbers)," he says, "the system must be made more attractive to discretionary riders."

Some time ago, Hayes made highly a publicized and unsuccessful bid for the RTA to take over the bus system from the city of Tucson. He still believes that is the best way to go.

Hayes says the city was subsidizing the system with $29 million in 2006, a figure that has shot up to $39 million. "How long can that continue?" he wonders.

In an e-mail, Glock outlines one future challenge for Sun Tran: "Securing a funding source to support existing transit services in addition to the RTA's committed funding for expanded services."

Concerning its overall financial health, Hayes acknowledges that RTA sales-tax receipts are 13 percent lower than originally projected. However, he quickly adds that construction bids are coming in 30 percent below estimates. "We're OK with our expenses and revenues," he insists.

The RTA is helping its cash-flow situation by issuing bonds, which require interest payments. Hayes says this was part of the initial plan and may be done more than once.

Longtime activist John Kromko questions that assertion; he believes that bonding was never mentioned in 2006. Kromko also doubts the overall financial viability of the RTA. "They clearly don't have enough money," he suggests.

That shortage, Kromko says, explains why the RTA is passing on the expense of line-relocation work to utility companies. This work will cost Tucson Water alone $40 million over the next five years.

"They never mentioned that, either," Kromko says of the 2006 RTA plan, "and this all hurts taxpayers."

Another problem with the RTA, Kromko adds, is its lack of maintenance money. "People can see it was a mistake, because we don't have money to fix potholes. Instead of maintaining city streets, we're building on the outskirts."

Hayes says that Pima County residents should see even more transportation work done over the next five years, especially along major traffic corridors. "We may be criticized for too much construction," he says.

The 10th anniversary of the RTA will be marked in 2016. That, Hayes indicates, is typically the time when transportation issues go back to voters for extensions.

Hayes thinks the RTA will begin looking at that issue around 2014, or "maybe sooner."

What would that mean? "I'm assuming they'll raise the sales-tax rate (higher)," Kromko says about a future transportation vote.

For now, Hayes says of the RTA: "We've fulfilled our promise to the voters, and we're approaching the balance of the plan that same way."

As for the total 20-year period, Hayes predicts: "All projects as portrayed (in 2006) will be competed by 2026."

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