Bumpy Roads

Tucson and Pima County struggle to maintain area streets

As anyone who has swerved to dodge a pothole knows, the city of Tucson has significant problems with its streets.

City officials estimate that 17 percent of residential streets are in failing or poor condition, with another 20 percent in fair condition. Just 10 percent are in excellent condition, with the remainder falling into the good or very good category.

But the bad news doesn't end there: There's little money available to fix the streets—and the longer the city puts it off, the bigger the bill gets.

That's because if the city does routine maintenance, the cost is an average of about $1 per square foot. But if it doesn't attend to that resurfacing work, the streets get so bad that they must be completely rebuilt, which increases the cost to anywhere from $11 per square foot to $46 per square foot.

Part of the funding shortfall goes back to the state's financial crisis. To balance the budget in recent years, state lawmakers cut the amount of gas taxes that are distributed to local jurisdictions, such as the city of Tucson and Pima County.

That shortfall has been exacerbated by the city's own budget problems, which has led to cutbacks to a plan developed in the mid-2000s to fund more street repairs. The funding crunch has city officials considering the possibility of asking voters to approve bond funding for repairs.

But Ward 6 Councilman Steve Kozachik would rather ask voters to divert a portion of the Regional Transportation Authority's funding from building roads to maintaining them.

The RTA plan, which was approved by voters in 2006, included a half-cent increase in the sales tax to pay for a variety of road-widenings, including making Grant Road six lanes between Oracle and Swan roads; widening Broadway Boulevard between Euclid Avenue and Country Club Road; and realigning Kolb Road to run alongside Udall Park near Tanque Verde Road. It also included funding for mass-transit, including more buses and the modern streetcar that will connect the University of Arizona and downtown.

"I'm not talking about getting rid of the package," Kozachik says. "I'm talking about, once the voters say, 'We want to put 20 percent of this into road reconstruction,' that will force a community conversation about the rest of the projects and how can we rescope them and get them back into budget."

Kozachik's proposal is getting a cool reception from Gary Hayes, the RTA's executive director. "It's not gonna fly for a lot of reasons," Hayes says. "I don't think it's our responsibility, when we have the duty to increase capacity, to do potholes on local streets. In addition to that, if you look at the major arterials in the plan—Broadway, Grant, etc.—they are all going to be resurfaced. So some major streets are going to be redone."

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry thinks it would be a "mistake" to reopen the RTA package for changes. He says that the path that led to the RTA involved a public process. At the time, those involved were more concerned about widening roads, increasing capacity and improving mass transit.

"We heard very, very little concern in that period about road repair," Huckelberry says.

Changing the plan now would mean that fewer of the RTA's scheduled projects would get done—which might be a challenge anyway, since some costs have risen since the RTA was passed.

Huckelberry says that Kozachik's proposal to use 20 percent of the RTA money would mean finding $400 million in road projects to cancel.

"It's just poor public policy to go in and try to second-guess the voters six years after you pass the RTA," Huckelberry says.

Pima County has its own road-maintenance problems, with Huckelberry noting in a report that the condition of streets outside of local city jurisdictions ranges from "mixed to poor. While we have a significant number of arterial and collector roadways that are in good condition due to new construction, we also have a number of arterial and collector roadways that are in need of major maintenance and repair."

The Pima County Board of Supervisors is set to discuss ways to fund road repair at its Tuesday, April 10, meeting. In advance of that discussion, Huckelberry has summarized 16 different ways that the county could find funding in its budget, including increasing property or sales taxes, borrowing from impact-fee accounts that now have cash in them, and pursuing Kozachik's suggestion that voters be asked to reallocate RTA funds.

Huckelberry blames the Arizona Legislature for providing fewer dollars for road repair.

"The continuing diversion of state revenues away from (the) Highway User Revenue Fund has taken a toll," says Huckelberry, who estimates that the state has shorted Pima County $26 million since 2007. "Our roads have noticeably deteriorated."

As the county weighs various ways to fix the streets, it also has to deal with an upcoming audit of its road-bond dollars, thanks to a bill pushed by Southern Arizona Republicans—including Rep. Terri Proud and Sen. Frank Antenori—and signed last week by Gov. Jan Brewer.

Huckelberry says he has no worries about the audit.

"I'm glad the state is paying for it," Huckelberry says. "It's a complete waste of money, but it's their money to waste. The Legislature is good at wasting money—taking other people's money and wasting it."

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