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The 1997 road-bond package has led to a mix of success and red tape

As the 10th anniversary of its approval by voters approaches, the 1997 road-bond package is the subject of a progress update about to be released by Pima County. While the report card will be favorable, dramatic cost increases have caused several major detours.

According to the county, overall project expenses are running more than 40 percent higher than anticipated a decade ago. "The construction-cost index has gone sky high," says Priscilla Cornelio, Pima County's director of transportation. "In the last year alone, it's gone up 7 to 10 percent."

The impact this has had on specific road projects is eye-popping. Widening Sunrise Drive east of Swan Road went from an estimated $5 million to $15 million. The controversial improvements to Craycroft Road north of River Road were originally anticipated to cost $12.5 million, but with the work now underway, the final bill is expected to total $31 million.

Given the frequent cost overruns, Cornelio says: "We're cutting back the scope (of some projects) and putting in other monies."

Based on information supplied by the county, of the $331 million approved in 1997 for 56 individual projects, 33 of them are completed in one fashion or another, and six more are now being designed or are under construction.

Two major road widenings from the package, however, are on hold--$20 million slated to improve Orange Grove Road between Thornydale and Oracle roads, and $10 million for Kolb Road.

Deputy county administrator John Bernal gives the 1997 transportation bond program an overall "B" grade while acknowledging Orange Grove Road won't be widened with its funds.

"River Road now takes some of the pressure off Orange Grove," Bernal says, "but we'll have to deal with it eventually using some other funding source."

According to Cornelio, there are an additional six projects from 1997 totaling $14 million which aren't slated for work in the next five years. "In essence," she says, "these projects are unfunded."

To look at options for the eight delayed projects, consultants are reviewing them, and their reports will soon go to Pima County administrators. By year's end, the Board of Supervisors should be presented with recommendations on how to proceed.

Another nine of the 1997 bond projects were transferred to the Regional Transportation Authority after voters last year approved raising the sales tax for transportation improvements. This shift meant the county provided the RTA with $50 million in bond funds for projects that were originally expected to cost $88 million.

Since the RTA will now be responsible for the nine proposals, Cornelio concludes: "In some ways, the RTA allowed us to complete these projects."

The county is also trying to generate additional money for road work by asking the city of Tucson to reimburse it for relocating Tucson Water lines from the path of street widenings (See "Money Grab," Currents, Feb. 15). This contentious issue has dragged on for years, but some progress may be being made.

As soon as next week, the Tucson City Council could review a partial settlement. Under the tentative agreement, Tucson Water would use $1.1 million of its capital-program funds to pay the county for past pipeline relocations. At the same time, Pima County Wastewater would reimburse Tucson's transportation department between $700,000 and $800,000 for moving sewers.

Assistant County Administrator Nanette Slusser thinks approval of this agreement is significant. "If we see checks change hands, that's a sign of goodwill," she says.

But even if approved, this agreement doesn't get to the heart of the water-line-relocation issue. Unlike every other water utility in Pima County, Tucson Water now only pays the county for half of the actual construction costs of moving its pipes out of the way of roadwork, thanks to a long-standing intergovernmental agreement

"We're taking one step at a time to get this resolved. Hopefully, we'll get things worked out," says assistant city manager Karen Masbruch.

However, a final settlement is nowhere on the horizon.

"Pima County would like the city to pay 100 percent of both the construction and design costs," explains Slusser. "We've been talking, but we haven't gotten real far."

As a result, a few months ago, Pima County began withholding payments on a proposed grade-separated interchange at 22nd Street and Kino Boulevard. Being planned by the city, this project was to be funded in part with $10 million from the 1997 road-bond package.

While city officials say the county's withholding of these payments hasn't yet affected the project, Cornelio says the consultants' bills of about $2,000 a month won't be paid "until resolution of the issues."

Another thing that could compound the stalemate is the wording of the "Tucson Water Users' Bill of Rights" initiative. One of its provisions forbids Tucson Water from adding a charge to customers' bills that would pay for roadwork. If the initiative is approved by voters in November, the city would have to come up with another source of funding for the estimated $43 million in reimbursable county water-line relocations over the next 12 years.

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