Downhill Path

No matter what we do, travel in Tucson is bound to get worse.

One major conclusion sticks out after our five-month series on transportation in Tucson: Traffic congestion is going to get worse before it gets really terrible. And there isn't a whole lot we can do about it.

We have built a community where the car is both king and culprit. With 90 percent of us using the auto to take trips--frequently driving long distances by ourselves--it's hardly surprising that as Tucson has grown, so have traffic problems.

For more than half a century, politicians and activists have been offering their own formulas for congestion salvation, but things continue to get worse. Meanwhile, the people who claim to have answers--whether it's a freeway or a light-rail system, grade-separated intersections or more buses--say they have The Solution.

Guess what? No matter how you fill in the blank, there is no single solution to our traffic woes. We don't have the patience, the purchasing power or the land-use patterns needed to make any one solution even remotely successful.

We also lack political leadership that can be trusted to give us straight answers on transportation issues. Instead, whether it's the 11th floor of the county administration building or the 10th floor of City Hall, the transportation discussion is all about PR spin.

We should have learned our lesson back in 1997, when Pima County officials and their road-building boosters pushed the sale of transportation bonds as The Solution. They have drastically under-delivered on their campaign promises.

And now, here come City Manager James Keene and Mayor Bob Walkup to tell us The Solution: We can solve Tucson's congestion woes if we only give them more money through increasing our sales tax by half a cent next May. From the sound of things, it's going to pay for a lot of new lanes, which will be congested as soon as they open.

Sound glum? Well, it is. Here's the only question the people of Tucson really have to answer about transportation: How much more do we want to spend to lessen future pain in tiny increments?

THERE ARE SOME STEPS we can take to improve transportation in Tucson:

· For starters, people need to stop whining about having to wait a minute or two at some intersections around town, plan to take a little longer for trips and learn to live with congestion because it's only going to get worse, no matter what we do. This town decided long ago that population growth was the priority; increased congestion is a natural by-product. If you want to do something about that, try occasionally car-pooling or walking to the store or doing anything to get out of your beloved automobile. It won't solve the problem, but it might make you feel better.

· Government at all levels needs to focus on priority problems that need fixing now, rather than unnecessary efforts on which we now spend far too much time and money. While they make for terrific models, the last downtown mile of the Barraza-Aviation Parkway and the Campbell/Grant grade-separated intersection are not near the top of the list of this community's transportation needs. Those projects should be shelved so we can focus on addressing problems where they currently exist, like along Kolb Road.

· Both the city and the county need more traffic enforcement. The only way to correct the terrible driving standards in this town is more police on the streets.

· We should stop preparing plans for projects that have no dedicated funding source for implementation, whether for the region's transportation future or the Fifth/Sixth Street corridor. They're just wasting money.

· We should invest more money in transportation technology. The City of Tucson is not installing traffic-control cameras at most intersections around town because it doesn't have enough money. That needs to change.

· More funds need to be spent on maintaining the transportation infrastructure we do have. But officials need to be truthful with us about how much that's going to cost. Earlier this year, City Manager Keene told the council rebuilding residential streets would total $60 million. A month ago, that figure climbed to $137 million as the sales tax came into focus.

· Policy makers should adopt a program of building roads in newly developed areas as wide as they will need to be after future growth occurs. That will be more expensive up front, but save a lot of money--and headaches--in the long run. To finance these roads, residential impact fees should be imposed on development that help cover the real cost of building streets to their ultimate width.

· The City of Tucson needs to stop thinking it has to solve the traffic problems caused by all those non-residents crowding the roads while they commute to and from their foothills homes at rush hour. If those foothills folks have to wait a little while at lights along Campbell Avenue, that's their problem. The city should spend its limited road-building resources on the transportation problems facing its own residents.

· All levels of government need to devote more money and attention to pedestrians. There are a lot of them in this town, but the lack of sidewalks and the danger of crossing major streets discourages even more people from walking.

In the end, there simply are no magic bullets for most of Tucson's transportation problems. We had better learn to live with them, because together we have built this sprawling mess. The best we can hope for is to not fall much further behind. Accomplishing even that will be expensive.

That isn't an optimistic prognosis, but it's an honest one.

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