Detour Ahead

A Gilbert lawmaker wants the Legislature to have a say in Pima County's upcoming transportation plan

A Maricopa County lawmaker has introduced a bill that would force Pima County's new transportation authority to get legislative approval of any plan put before voters.

Rep. Andy Biggs, a Republican from Gilbert, says he wants to ensure "there was a good process and adequate public discourse.

"I know that there are hearings held when (the Pima Association of Governments) is developing the plan," adds Biggs, "but I would suggest that it's really a great thing to have the public be able to take a real solid, good look at whatever plan comes out of down there or anywhere else that might have a regional transportation plan."

Gary Hayes, executive director of the Pima Association of Governments, says the group is already doing a tremendous amount of public outreach.

"Our process is totally open," Hayes says. "We have a very engaged citizens committee and technical committee. Once we get something that can pass muster, we're going to be out there with all the neighborhood groups and civic groups that we can go to.

"To have the Legislature get back in and deal with their agenda, specifically on the transit side of the equation, just doesn't make any sense," Hayes adds. "It puts us that much further behind, and we can't afford to be any further behind than we already are."

Freshman Rep. Jonathan Paton, a Republican who represents eastside Tucson and other parts of Southern Arizona, says Pima County should be free to craft a plan without legislative meddling.

"I don't want Phoenix to decide how we build our roads, run our buses or do our elections," Paton says.

PAG's regional transportation authority director, Tim Ahrens, says the organization is still reviewing House Bill 2293, with the regional council prepared to discuss the legislation at a meeting this week.

"We talked to our management committee, and they were upset," Ahrens says.

The Legislature last year empowered PAG to ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to pay for a new transportation plan overseen by an upgraded regional authority.

PAG officials are now crafting that proposal. Earlier this week, a citizens' committee had its second meeting, while the technical committee, chaired by County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, met for the first time last week.

Ahrens says PAG's timeline--which he calls "a little optimistic"--calls for developing a framework by early summer. That would allow for public review, revisions and a final draft by the end of the year, with plans for a May 2006 election.

Waiting to get a stamp of approval during the 2006 legislative session could make a spring election impossible, according to Ahrens.

Biggs, who was unaware that PAG was aiming for a spring 2006 election, vowed to "do all that I can" to move any plan swiftly through the 2006 session.

Ahrens is also spooked by another of Biggs' bills, HB 2300, which would force PAG to split any mass transit option into a separate ballot question.

"The people who are more pro-roads and the people who are more pro-transit are sitting at the same table, and we surely don't want that to hurt our approach to making a regional transportation plan that has all modes considered," says Ahrens.

Biggs says splitting transit as a separate question will put more power in the hands of voters.

"I believe that voters need to have clear-cut choice," says Biggs, a fierce opponent of Maricopa County's light-rail plans, which were passed by voters last November. Biggs complains that light rail is unsafe, expensive and impractical. (He's also sponsored a bill that cuts off funding to Maricopa County's light-rail system if it can't pass audits.)

Rep. Tom Prezelski, who serves on the House Transportation Committee, says any Pima County plan that doesn't include transit risks losing a constituency that's vital to success at the ballot box.

"If you're forced to divide the plan, essentially you're going to have the same result you've been having: transportation plans that consistently fail, because they're weighted one direction or the other," says Prezelski.

Biggs says he's already heard grumbling from Southern Arizona representatives that his bills amount to troublesome meddling in Pima County's affairs.

"Anybody who has worked around the Legislature and is a bit of cynic can appreciate their concerns, because there is no doubt there's a propensity by the legislators to meddle," said Biggs.

But he insists the entire issue is about "process" and shouldn't be seen as an effort to reduce local control--or exact vengeance from Pima County lawmakers who opposed his efforts to restrict light rail in Maricopa County last year.

"It's about having a process so that people will have a full view of the plan when they are voting," Biggs said. "That's what I tried to sell them on. I understand that it's not being bought down in Pima County."

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