Drivers In A Box

Bond money for major-road improvements is increasingly diverted to neighborhood projects.

In return for your votes nearly four years ago for Pima County's $350 million road bonds and your taxes for 20 years, the Board of Supervisors has put you in traffic in a 40-year-old Valiant, a six-banger with arm-strong steering, no a/c, windows that don't roll down, a sticking choke and three on the tree with a clutch that slips.

You lurch. You start. You stop. You can't merge, let alone flow. Supervisors who literally whiz by in their new, cool SUVs--some with driver--or Crown Vics have managed to build few of the roads promised for the taxes you pay at the pump.

Supervisors have overseen a 56-project transportation plan they have shuffled and reshuffled while completing less than 5 percent in terms of dollars, 10 percent by number and one-fourth by lane mile.

Along the way, supervisors and the county's administration and Department of Transportation have:

· Mismanaged schedules, both for projects and for bond sales, missing deadlines that mean a loss of purchasing power for roads and the sacrifice of millions of dollars in interest. Slow project schedules forced the first sale of bonds in January 1998 to be cut by a third to $40 million. A second sale of $60 million in bonds in January 2000 was canceled. County officials now hope to market $60 million in bonds next January, but may trim bond sales to smaller amounts whose revenues can be used more timely so the county won't again run afoul of federal arbitrage rules.

· Mowed down precious and protected ironwood trees and saguaros on Thornydale and Magee roads in a widening project awarded to Hunter Construction. A total of 557 trees were ripped down instead of the 32 that country transportation officials pledged in an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The carnage included 113 ironwoods, 14 saguaros that stood more than six feet, 295 saguaros under six feet, and 155 palo verde, mesquite and hackberry trees. The site, adjacent to pygmy owl habitat, mortified County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, the former eager-to-pave transportation director whose new cornerstone is the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

· Ignored the non-stop promises they made during and after the campaign to get road bonds approved on November 4, 1997 that changes would be prevented by a tough Truth in Bonding Ordinance. Projects ranging from the Mt. Lemmon shuttle to the county's share of the 22nd Street widening, have been shelved or erased. Supervisors Ann Day, a Republican, and Sharon Bronson, a Democrat, get partial passes. Day, a former state Senator, did not take her central and foothills District 1 seat on the Board of Supervisors until this January. Bronson, now in her second term from rural and northwest District 3, campaigned against the road bonds in 1997, preferring a pay-as-you-go scheme to the current financing.

· Inflated, at the insistence of fourth-term Democratic Supervisor Raúl Grijalva, the $9 million project on South 12th Avenue to $36 million. Huckelberry said last weekend from his Puerto Peñasco getaway that the project's scope shrank again after "the reality of what was available hit home."

· Cruised past charges, leveled late last year by lame-duck Transportation Director Brooks Keenan, that Grijalva, Democratic Supervisor Dan Eckstrom and Huckelberry steered at least four lucrative engineering contracts to their political supporters. Grijalva, who had pushed for Keenan to be hired when the county was without a transportation boss, has acknowledged that he also pushed for favorite firms for work on South 12th Avenue. DJA--now Castro Engineering, headed by Grijalva supporter Frank Castro, also a former county transportation director--and Collins-Piña--now Tetra Tech, managed locally by Grijalva backer Raúl Piña--received no-bid work that paid $575,000. Collins-Pina then landed a second-phase contract worth $800,000. Grijalva offered a novel explanation that had nothing to do with specifications, qualifications or proposals: sensitivity to the heavily Hispanic area.

Grijalva benefited greatly in his election campaigns from his association with Piña. He collected $2,020 from Pina and other members of the firm last year and $6,497 -- more than double the amount given to any other supervisor -- from members of the firms getting bond contracts. Fourteen of the 25 firms had officers and workers give to board members.

Keenan, now an assistant in the city transportation department, lost some steam when he said Eckstrom called him, sometimes at home, to apply pressure. Eckstrom rarely talks to county administrators, and more than a dozen people, including former county managers, department heads and bureaucrats, told the Weekly that Eckstrom never calls department heads or bureaucrats at home.

Moreover, Eckstrom is not likely to be faulted for advocating for small Hispanic firms, such as Steve Corrales Engineering, which received a $114,000 contract for work on Old Tucson-Nogales Highway in the Summit neighborhood, long neglected until Eckstrom helped the area battle a landfill intrusion eight years ago.

Keenan's allegations were forwarded to the County Attorney's Office, which sought a review by an outside agency. Huckelberry has not been questioned.

· Opened with a celebration two weeks ago (it seemed like a taxpayer-financed holiday) a section of River Road that connects Thornydale at Ina Road to River and La Cañada Drive. Officials rode around the new stretch in convertibles. Transportation public relations woman Annabelle Quihuis went hyperbolic, proclaiming that the section now meant a link between Thornydale and Sabino Canyon roads. That work is part of a nearly $13 million series of projects that chiefly benefit developer-driven Marana and powerful land speculator Donald R. Diamond, who five years ago won narrow approval from the Board of Supervisors for his controversial River Crossing rezoning at River and La Cholla Boulevard.

This was an incongruous party for Grijalva, now in his second swing as chairman of the board. When gadfly John Kromko uttered a challenge by questioning Grijalva's environmental credentials as he began his first campaign for the Board of Supervisors in 1988, Grijalva molded himself as the movement's prince, striding to vote against anything with a hint of growth. Yet he fervently supported the transportation bonds in 1997.

Hours after the River Road party, Grijalva said, "It's a trade-off."

But the county has completed only three other projects: an upgrade in drainage in Sahuarita near Green Valley on Abrego Drive; Pistol Hill Road from Colossal Cave Road to Old Spanish Trail for $1.7 million; and various projects on South Sixth Avenue in South Tucson for $5.1 million.

WORK FOR THE ROAD BONDS WAS NEVER pretty. As the chairman in 1997, Grijalva wanted everyone on the same page. He ordered separate meetings with supervisors for particulars on the parks, open space, jails and sewer bonds--which totaled $361 million and which passed in May of that year--as well as the transportation measures.

His chief aide, Glenn Miller, the enfant terrible of county government since 1989, handled the dirty work. One such meeting in Grijalva's office on February 24, 1997, a Monday holiday, with Bronson started with snickering from Miller and ended with Bronson throwing a chair. The catfight was much like a lover's spat. Miller and Bronson had been allies on numerous issues and Miller worked on Bronson's upset victory in 1996. The earth hardly shook, as both are around 5 feet tall. Miller, whose annual county pay is up to $58,475, issued a final ruling that projects would be built in the areas in which they were supported.

Bronson went her way, campaigning against the road bond package and advocating a pay-as-you-go program. She was joined by lawyer and neighborhood activist Anne Graham-Bergin; city transportation activist Bonnie Poulos, now a member of the city Planning and Zoning Commission; environmentalist Rich Genser; and neighborhood and political activist Dave Devine, an urban planner and frequent contributor to the Tucson Weekly.

They were wildly outspent, bringing in $2,655 while the pro-bond committee, Citizens for a Better Community, raised $147,201, including about $80,000 on the road bonds. Pina and his firm were instrumental in raising the money, and his and a number of other firms that wound up with contracts poured money into that campaign as they have done with supervisors' races. (See chart, page 15.)

Bronson was active in the 1986 campaign against a countywide, $1 billion transportation plan to be financed by a half-cent sales tax and against another, less road-heavy plan also to be funded by a half-cent sales tax in 1990. Both failed, 57 percent to 43 percent in 1986, and 61 percent to 39 percent in 1990. But Bronson has pushed for four years to soak consumers with a half-cent sales tax to raise about $50 million a year that she and other supervisors could spend on whatever they choose.

The 1997 transportation plan was different. It marked the first time the county would finance transportation bonds with its share of gas tax revenues that then-Gov. J. Fife Symington III had boosted the previous year. (The county's take last year was $48 million.) This plan appealed to Pima County voters, who pay the highest property taxes of any county in the state, and who have shown clear disdain for a county sales tax. Here was a way to get transportation improvements with gas taxes they already were paying.

The opponents' message is today as clear as a credit card bill: Bond payments from 1998 through 2018 now are projected to be $497.6 million--with $147.6 million, or 42 percent, for interest.

Still, the measure passed easily, reversing the 1986 outcome 57 to 43. And while the 1986 and 1990 measures failed in each supervisorial district, the 1997 road bonds passed in every district.

Bronson's home precinct, 233, north of Ajo Way and west of Kinney Road, voted against the road bonds, as did two neighboring precincts and Tucson Estates. Nevertheless the area, increasingly congested, will get an upgrade on Kinney from Ajo to Bopp Road. Other parts of Bronson's district stood against the measure, including the unincorporated outpost of Ajo, which is slated for nothing in the package.

A full swath of the northwest side, north from Prince Road and west through the Catalina Foothills spanning parts of Bronson's, Day's and Ray Carroll's districts, happily supported the 1997 road bonds. Among those were 16 precincts running from Sunset Road north into Continental Ranch and northwest to Tortolita that last year wanted Republican Barney Brenner instead of a second Bronson term.

Carroll is a Republican who was appointed to the eastside and Green Valley seat, District 4, after John Even died of cancer four months into his term. Carroll likes to boast about his fast work on the road bond campaign. All 13 of the never-fail-to-vote Green Valley precincts voted against the plan. Still, Green Valley and Sahuarita, which also voted against the bonds, will get six more projects.

For Grijalva, the road bonds passed easily in his district. Only six precincts out of 71 in District 5, which includes affluent Sam Hughes, West University and the Tucson Mountains as well as a panhandle on the south side, rejected the road bonds in 1997. That's a sharp contrast to the 1990 transportation/sales tax vote where only 21 precincts were supportive. The 1997 question also passed easily in Grijalva's own neighborhood, precinct 49 on Ohio Street east of South 12th Avenue, but turnout--15.4 percent--was the 14th lowest of the county's 403 precincts. Turnout for the 1990 road plan and half-cent sales tax was 45 percent in the Grijalva precinct.

Turnout was even lower in Eckstrom's home precincts in South Tucson, but they and most other precincts in District 2, which also includes the south side, supported the road bonds. But Barrio Viejo, the Elysian Grove, Armory Park, Barrio San Antonio, and District 5's Ironhorse and Pie Allen all rejected the road bonds.

BEFORE HE MAPPED OUT HIS UPSET WIN for the City Council in midtown Ward 6 in 1997, Fred Ronstadt wanted the supervisor's post that was given to Carroll. He applied, spoke at a forum and received no consideration. A year later, as a Republican councilman, Ronstadt joined Carroll, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik and a bunch of other pols in a charity event racing mini-cars around downtown's government ghetto on a Saturday. Carroll, who has taken the race-driving courses that attract yuppies, was apparently too competitive for Ronstadt. He cried foul, saying Carroll ran him off the road to win a make-believe race.

Last week, Carroll and all the supervisors ran Ronstadt over.

He had come, perhaps with too much piety and condescension, to lecture supervisors on democracy, and to seek to block their move to modify the Truth in Bonding Ordinance to strip $10 million from the 22nd Street widening.

Supervisors listened. Then Eckstrom slapped Ronstadt around. Then they voted 5-0 to take the money out of the bond package and use it for neighborhood improvements in South Tucson and other parts of Eckstrom's district.

Cries were immediate, from City Hall to South Park Avenue, where the Arizona Daily Star, in what could be its first editorial critical of Grijalva, scolded him for arrogance.

Grijalva, who toyed with the idea of running for mayor two years ago and now wants to run for Congress, and his colleagues had sought to appease the City Council in 1997 by promising seven or eight projects within the city limits.

Last week Ronstadt stumbled with his very first remark, a patronizing line about city-county cooperation that concerned the drive-around nonsense at the River Road opening three days earlier.

Then he played the "we didn't know about this" card.

The whole show is instructive not just for the 40,000-plus drivers who use 22nd Street in its I-10/Park Avenue stretch every day but for others looking for regional transportation solutions. With the city now venturing off on a transportation plan and sales tax alone, the Ronstadt-Eckstrom dialogue illustrates that necessary regional cooperation is no longer even in the rear-view mirror.

"Clearly not everyone is being allowed to agree," Ronstadt said. "The citizens have not been consulted. To hear about an amendment to a public bond package on Friday and have the vote on the amendment scheduled for the following Monday raises questions about how much the county values citizen input on projects they have already voted for."

The county had actually advertised, in a small legal notice, the hearing to make unspecified changes as required 15 days earlier.

Ronstadt, coached by two assistant managers including Benny Young, a longtime city transportation boss who was wise enough to stay in the back of the room, asked for a delay "so we can have an opportunity to have input and dialogue, which is what this democracy, what this public process is all about."

That started Eckstrom.

"Twenty-second Street. Is that in your ward?"

Ronstadt: "No sir, it is not in my ward, but we are elected citywide. And the 22nd Street improvement was promised to the voters of the city of Tucson. It's a strategic--"

Eckstrom: "Can you tell me, Mr. Ronstadt, in your capital improvement program right now, 22nd Street widening project, what are the sources of funds for the remaining balance of that project?"

Ronstadt: "We are currently identifying that source and we are optimistic that the voters in Tucson will adopt a half-cent sales tax and that will go, that will go--"

Eckstrom, who made short work earlier of perusing the city five-year capital budget to see none of the $24 million to $34 million needed to complete the 22nd Street widening from Interstate 10 to South Park Avenue, set more bait.

"When was the project approved?"

Ronstadt: "It was approved in 1997."

Eckstrom: "So you've had four years and you haven't figured it out yet?"

Ronstadt complained that Eckstrom and Huckelberry met with City Manager James Keene and Councilman Steve Leal, a Democrat who represents the city's south side.

"And you know we can't operate with these closed-door negotiations. We are a public body. We are responsible to the voters of the city of Tucson and of Pima County, and the voters approved that project," Ronstadt said. "And for this body to change that project without public process, without significant dialogue with the community, with the city of Tucson, is irresponsible."

Eckstrom later told Ronstadt "before you come up here and lecture us on democracy you ought to take a lesson yourself and discover it. The other question is, are you telling me that you don't think neighborhoods need roadway improvements?"

Ronstadt: "What I'm saying is that voters voted on a specific plan in 1997.

Eckstrom: "But you haven't come through."

Ronstadt: "We haven't had the opportunity to come through."

Eckstrom: "You've had plenty of--can you show me in your Capital Improvement Program right now that you are making allocations for this project?"

Ronstadt: "But, we have--"

Eckstrom: "You don't have it in there, do ya?"

Ronstadt: "We have been in dialogue with the county and we--"

Eckstrom: "You just told me a minute ago that we haven't been in dialogue. Now we have dialogue."

Eckstrom, who has a long record of making end-runs around the city from his days on the Pima Association of Governments council as mayor of South Tucson, then questioned Ronstadt about neighborhood projects and the city's Back to Basics program, which allocates $800,000 to each of the six wards.

"Sir, we're talking about apples and oranges," Ronstadt said. "This is a voter-approved--"

Eckstrom: "It may be apples and oranges to you, but to me it's the big banana."

Stripped fast or slow, Ronstadt and other city officials should hardly be surprised. They opened the door with entreaties from Young and city lobbyist Mary Okoye as long as six months ago about moving the county's $10 million share to East Broadway or East Grant Road.

Day, who chairs the PAG council, said she had not been contacted by anyone from the city, although city officials told PAG that they didn't have city transportation plans ready.

"I'm somewhat surprised the city is going it alone," she said, mentioning her other surprise that the city, if it favors neighborhood street work, would be against this move.

Carroll joined in, saying the move has his support as long as the city is "$14 million or $24 million behind the 8-ball and it's been four years. As long as it is within the boundaries of Mr. Eckstrom's district and as long as Mr. Leal and Mr. Eckstrom continue to discuss where these dollars are going to be located ... I'm going to support it."

Eckstrom underscored county work within the city by mentioning a bridge in Corbett neighborhood. "For once, following the pattern of our neighborhood reinvestment program, we say, let's take $10 million out of $350 million and put it into neighborhoods and people get upset. I can't understand that," he said.

"I think neighborhoods are sick and tired of paying taxes and yet not seeing a greater bang for their buck come to them. So any time I get a chance to come down on the side of neighborhoods, you bet your bottom dollar that's where I'm going to come. I'm going to come down on the side of neighborhoods whether anybody likes it or not."

The switch also drew support from Raúl Piña, the county's bond committee chairman.

His engineering firm, Collins-Piña, was acquired by Tetra Tech, where he remains a manager. Tetra Tech had been awarded a $1.3 million contract for work on the 22nd Street widening.

That work, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said, is now on hold. No payments had been made.

The entire, reorganized bond program, Huckelberry said, is between two years and three years behind schedule.

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment