A Longer Life?

A move by the City Council to extend Rio Nuevo's time has some activists feeling deceived

In 1999, the city of Tucson repeatedly told voters that funding for the Rio Nuevo downtown improvement program would last 10 years. But now the City Council seems bent on extending that time period--and some members don't think the council has to ask for another OK from the public.

Since the official ballot language didn't mention the length of time, councilmembers believe they are not legally obligated to send the measure back to the voters.

Former state legislator John Kromko strongly disagrees. He thinks the council is just playing a bait-and-switch game.

Prior to Rio Nuevo being approved, newspaper publicity paid for by City Hall stated the project would "receive a portion of future expansion in state sales tax revenues generated within the boundaries of the Rio Nuevo site for the next 10 years." The information pamphlet sent to every voter also twice specified funding would last for a decade.

Three current councilmembers, though, cite the progress being made with the project, as well as the benefits of the primary funding source, as reasons why the length of the district's lifespan should be extended.

"The (original) amount of time was not enough," explains Steve Leal, "but no one said anything." Plus, as the southside representative points out, the rapid rise in construction costs seen recently could not have been anticipated. Thus, he says a time extension "will give wiggle room to not have to compromise Rio Nuevo projects."

Midtown Councilmember Nina Trasoff also supports the idea. "It's important to try it," she says of the proposal, which will require approval by the Legislature.

As for not going back to the voters with this change, Trasoff asks: "What is the negative (of extending the period)? If the money was used for something else, I'd be concerned. But we're trying to extend something for which the voters showed strong support. I see that as a positive."

Kromko argues the timeline is being lengthened to possibly allow a large chuck of Rio Nuevo money to be used to tunnel Interstate 10 underground from St. Mary's Road to 29th Street. He insists neither that project, nor anything like it, was ever proposed to city voters in 1999.

"There is no way you can construe what people were told for putting the freeway underground," Kromko says. "When Rio Nuevo was sold to the public, it had an aquarium, museums, historic preservation and open areas. A lot of people who wanted to restore downtown jumped on the bandwagon. ... Those people have been tricked."

While a consulting firm hurriedly studies the idea of depressing the highway, a variation of which was previously rejected (See "Road Block," Aug. 16, 2001), how to pay for the tunnel is also being considered.

The city's Department of Transportation is awaiting the results of the study before issuing an estimated cost for the lengthy underpass, but early guesses have ranged as high as several hundred million dollars. Meanwhile, the state of Arizona has delayed its plans to widen I-10 from Prince Road to 29th Street, a project for which they have budgeted $193 million.

Currently, the Rio Nuevo district receives about $750,000 a month in sales-tax receipts from the state. Over its entire 10-year life, which officially began in 2003, it is expected to bring in a total of $124 million.

In addition to these funds, private developers are expected to invest a lot of money downtown. The city of Tucson is also required to match the state's contribution, either through local sales-tax revenues or expenditures on infrastructure improvements.

Assuming the state Legislature approves extending the length of the Rio Nuevo project, an increase of 10 years would add $246 million more; 20 years could mean $581 million more, and 30 years almost $1 billion extra.

It is the source of those funds which is so attractive to Leal and Trasoff. "We get too little money back from Phoenix now," Trasoff declares. "I very much support extending the time period."

Eastside Councilmember Carol West agrees, and also thinks the boundaries of the Rio Nuevo district should be enlarged. She has asked the City Attorney's Office for advice on how that can be accomplished, but assumes the voters would have to approve the change.

West thinks the borders of the original district weren't well-conceived. "Things were done in a hurry," she says, "and it left out some key properties which should have been included."

West also believes it will take a major political push to get the time extension approved and wants to include representatives from the University of Arizona and Pima County in the effort.

From his perspective, Kromko thinks the idea of extending the time period has little chance of success. Citing the city's decision to draw the Rio Nuevo boundaries to include both Park Place and El Con malls, Kromko recalls many members of the Legislature were furious at that maneuver.

Kromko also points out that the state has enormous spending responsibilities of its own. "Every dime that goes into this," Kromko says of the sales tax receipts which fund Rio Nuevo, "is taken from something else, like kindergartens."

Repeating his basic point about the Rio Nuevo time extension, Kromko says: "If they can change it at will, voters have to stop approving stuff like the upcoming May sales tax election. You can't trust these guys."