Drive Time

The 'Weekly' encourages you to vote yes on the transportation plan

We're tired of sitting in traffic on crappy roads. We're tired of deficient bus service. We're tired of lousy sidewalks.

And that's why we're ready to support the Regional Transportation Authority's 20-year, $2.1 billion transportation plan, which will be funded by a half-cent sales tax if Pima County voters listen to us and say yes on Election Day, May 16.

Local voters have proven a prickly bunch. In the last four years, Tucsonans have rejected two efforts to increase the sales tax to pay for transportation projects. The first one, which concentrated on roads, was too hard; the second, which would have boosted public transit, was too soft.

So is this one just right?

Well, that might be a bit of a fairy tale. But the plan, while imperfect, is the result of a public process of give-and-take to reach political consensus. And we're willing to give a little on things we don't like in order to get the things we want.

The plan fills in major gaps in our roadway system. It does not include a freeway (far too expensive and too politically charged), but it does widen corridors that will provide congestion relief--or at least prevent us from falling further behind. Streets get widened both inside the city and on the perimeter of the community.

We also get a major boost to our transit system. You may not ride the bus today, but once the price of gas climbs to $4, $5 or $6 a gallon, you might find it's an attractive alternative--especially if service is improved. For that matter, as you get older--and our community has more than its share of retirees--you might come to prefer letting someone else take the wheel.

The plan looks to the future with a rail system between the university and downtown that could someday be expanded if Tucsonans embrace it. The cost of that rail system amounts to roughly 4 percent of the overall package. We can afford it.

And it improves safety and convenience for pedestrians, bicyclists and even little desert critters.

Opponents of the plan present a variety of arguments, some more compelling than others.

They fret that Grant Road businesses will suffer through the construction, which is undeniably true. But their preferred alternative--construction of intersection improvements and bus pullouts--would also bring hardship to businesses while leaving Grant a cramped, worn-out, unsafe congested corridor that lacks sidewalks and floods when it rains. And that proposal for turn lanes and bus pullouts assumes there's funding available for that work. Newsflash: There isn't.

They argue that road construction on the city's periphery is an invitation to more sprawl--which is also true. But the sad fact of the matter is that sprawl is coming whether we widen Houghton Road or not. And it's not even sprawl that we can control, since new home buyers in both Cochise and Pinal counties will soon be jamming our streets. Like it or not, they're coming our way. We can deal with it now or live with the nightmare later.

They dismiss the urban streetcar as "trolley folly." But once a line is established in a high-density area, it has a chance to expand through central Tucson, creating an economic corridor that would be great for business and provide a real alternative to driving as gas prices climb. It's worked in other cities; it can work here.

They complain that a sales tax is regressive. Well, sure it is--but it's also the only politically feasible method of raising money for transportation. The political hurdles to creating a local gas tax--starting with a statewide vote to amend the Arizona Constitution--are simply too high. And even if that were not the case, you'd need an 11-cent-a-gallon gas tax to bring in what a half-cent sales tax would raise. Not that we're opposed to higher gas taxes--but we're betting a majority of Pima County voters would be.

Another bonus of using a sales tax: A big chunk gets paid by out-of-town visitors.

The critics distrust government will actually do all the work that they're promising. We'll grant that the city and county certainly have had a history of overpromising and under-delivering--and the way that property values and concrete costs are rising, our leaders may find that they've underestimated the costs this time out, too. But if that's an argument to vote no this time, then it's an argument to vote no forevermore--and that means we'll never even make a first step toward solving our problems.

Besides, we have a feeling that if this were a plan that opponents liked, then the distrust argument would vanish.

Pima County's transportation woes are only going to get worse. Even if this plan passes, our needs will far outstrip our available resources. But if it fails, we won't even start to address them.

This plan doesn't include experimental boondoggles such as grade-separated intersections. It provides a major boost for our struggling bus system. It's buttressed by impact fees that will help shoulder the cost of development on the community's fringe.

If you want a perfect plan, you'll be waiting longer than a commuter at Grant and First. This plan is a product of compromise, which means that nearly everyone will have a problem with one part or another. But it's still being supported by environmentalists in the Sky Island Alliance and developers in the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association; by car dealers and the Pima County Interfaith Council; by Democrats and Republicans; and by a long list of folks in between.

It's time to say yes for a change. Support Props 1 and 2.

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