Barely Functional

The RTA's control over its Broadway-widening project begins to slip away

It could not have been more obvious last week just how much—despite their best efforts—the bureaucrats are losing control of their plans to turn Broadway Boulevard into a mini-freeway.

Into that breach has stepped the citizens' task force. Originally convened as an adornment meant to rubber-stamp this $74 million project, the group is increasingly questioning the need for an eight-lane, auto-centric thoroughfare that may be based on suspect traffic projections.

Thus, the cement-heads pushing to widen Broadway instead found themselves chatting about rapid-transit buses, pedestrian problems, bicycle safety and land consumption. And members of the citizens' group began asking questions that hardly fit neatly into the little box carefully crafted for them.

In truth, that box was ripped open on Sept. 18, when Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik—whose Ward 6 encompasses the project, slated for Broadway from Euclid Avenue to Country Club Road—pushed the council to clarify exactly what could be considered as Broadway improvements. This is crucial, considering the project's vague guidelines dating from 2006, when voters approved a 20-year, $2.1 billion transportation plan overseen by the Regional Transportation Authority and funded with a half-cent increase in the sales tax.

Back then, the RTA board had pledged "not to diminish functionality" as Broadway project plans were updated. But since functionality was in the eye of the beholder, that stance only seemed to enhance the RTA's power, given that it could threaten to withhold funding if changes to the plan were seen as straying too far from the fuzzy original mandate.

By contrast, Kozachik's council motion brought that power back to the city—the designated lead agency for this project—by demanding that functionality be defined through objective, sustainable transportation-performance measures created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, rather than by some whim of the RTA. As a result, outdated, car-focused notions of "functionality" gave way to holistic roadway considerations such as carbon intensity, land consumption, transit productivity and transportation affordability.

Given this new reality, veiled threats then gave way to a conciliatory tone as Jim DeGrood, the RTA transportation-services director, addressed the Oct. 18 task-force gathering. "In our discussions with the various communities of the RTA," he said, "we've stressed that there needs to be dialogue between the groups so ... as decisions start to be made, we're all participating in the discussion so that everybody is in line."

Jennifer Toothaker Burdick, the city's project manager, agreed, saying: "I do feel it's incumbent on us to get that conversation going" so that "the red flags come up earlier, and we can talk through those things."

That night's meeting subsequently included a lengthy analysis of those EPA standards by Phil Erickson, president of the Oakland, Calif.-based firm Community Design + Architecture. Erickson is among a small army of consultants for whom taxpayers are paying $330,000 over the next few months to help design this project.

Standing outside of the conference room, Kozachik mused over the project team's newfound intimacy with those federal standards. "I think it's very coincidental that the EPA guidelines all of a sudden became part of the conversation," he said, noting ironically that Erickson and crew now acted like they "were thinking of those all along. But the only thing anybody else ever heard before was 'level of service' and the time it takes you to drive through an intersection."

Contacted later by email, Erickson pointed to the City Council's decision that the citizens' task force "conduct their work under a definition of functionality that allows for consideration of performance measures detailed in the U.S. EPA's 'Guide to Sustainable Transportation Performance Measures.'"

That leaves one more question in the gray zone: Just how much traffic is Broadway Boulevard expected to handle in coming years, and does it justify plowing down endless properties—and blowing through huge amounts of money—to widen the road? "Even the (consultants') own data shows that traffic isn't increasing substantially," Kozachik said. The pro-cement group is saying, "They've got to widen; they've got to widen," he said. "And yet that is not what they're hearing from anybody else."

According to an analysis conducted this year by another of the consultants, Kittelson and Associates, Broadway traffic levels are projected to rise from the current 40,000 trips per day to as many as 56,000 per day by 2040. But critics call those projections screwy. Speaking to the group, widening opponent Laura Tabili argued that the majority of traffic measurements were taken east of the proposed construction area, while in the project zone, between Euclid and Country Club, traffic volumes remain "between 30,000 and 40,000. This is about the same as in the 1980s."

Back outside, Kozachik said he was against widening Broadway at all. Instead, he would like to see the project completed within its current boundaries, and using only the $42 million in bond money approved by voters. He'd also prefer that the county's promised $25 million contribution be steered toward more-needed projects.

"There's $43 million just in right-of-way acquisition for this project," he said. "We can find another place to spend it that will probably make more sense."

Of course, that's contingent on whether the money ever comes through at all. Responding to several claims that Kozachik made in his popular online Ward 6 newsletter, county Transportation Director Priscilla Cornelio dispatched a note to the councilman outlining details of paying for the Broadway project, including the fact that the county's share of funding amounts to $25 million. About $1.3 million of that has already been given to the city for right-of-way acquisition.

Then again, times are hard. In her July 31 missive, Cornelio wrote that the county "is committed to providing the remaining $23.5 million for construction once the project has been bid and awarded." However, she added that while Pima County "has been experiencing challenges" after a drop in shared federal roadway funds, "at this time, we are optimistic that we will be able to sell the remaining $23.5 million in bonds to cover the city after (fiscal year) 2014."