Pothole Predicament

The outlook is bleak for a smooth ride on city streets.

Road widenings and grade-separated interchanges? More mass transit and light rail? Those were the headline-grabbing choices given Tucson voters during the last 18 months, and they said no to both.

While these two pitches to increase the sales tax to pay for transportation projects were being dumped, so, too, were prospects for additional street maintenance funding. Despite that, the rapidly deteriorating condition of city streets is probably the one point that most drivers can agree on.

The 2002 proposed transportation package overwhelmingly rejected by the voters would have provided an extra $15 million a year for greater street repair and maintenance work. November's failed ballot measure could have supplied $10 million more annually for the same purpose.

Without those additional funds, where does that leave the city of Tucson's efforts to maintain 1,343 miles of residential streets, 516 miles of alleyways and 388 miles of collectors and major arterials?

"The prospects are pretty dim," according to Jim Glock, director of Tucson's Department of Transportation. "It does not appear that the highway user revenue funds (generated from gas taxes and vehicle license fees) we receive from the state will grow fast enough to help. And that is what solely pays for all our maintenance of residential streets and much of what we do on arterials. So we'll do maintenance as our resources allow, and address local street issues when possible."

Two years ago, the department estimated $213 million would be required to fix most existing streets and totally rebuild another 550 miles of roads that were beyond repair. Glock said then that the maintenance goal was just to try and keep things about as they were.

But the $22 million the Transportation Department currently spends yearly on upkeep is spread between numerous projects, including lighting, landscaping, washes and guardrails. Fixing potholes and repairing local streets gets just a small percentage of the total, and as a result, only about 60 miles of residential roadways are worked on every 12 months.

Thus, pavement surfaces citywide continue to deteriorate. As one recent letter writer to The Weekly asked: "Why are the potholes on my neighborhood streets worse than those in most Third World countries?"

In response, Glock indicates his department would like $5 to $10 million more annually for street repairs, and says of the current funding situation, "We haven't been able to do any systematic-based maintenance for the last two years." Instead, the department prioritizes its work based on safety-related issues and requests for service.

"The focus of the department," Glock adds, "is on the safety of the roadway system with emphasis on high volume streets." What that means for maintenance of residential roads, he says, is that the city looks first to fix those with "suspension-bending" potholes.

While Glock states the city is moving toward a geographical attack on pavement maintenance, he believes that without more money, the frustrating condition of Tucson's streets isn't going to change much. "In the long-term," Glock concludes, "we need to look at new funding options that the community will find acceptable," and his department has been lobbying for a higher tax on gasoline, tires, or even use of the city's unrestricted general fund money.

Republican Mayor Bob Walkup's proposal for a Regional Transportation Authority won't contain that elusive funding solution. Even if implemented, the RTA wouldn't oversee local street maintenance issues, which would remain the responsibility of the city.

Calling current maintenance efforts "disheartening," Democratic City Councilwoman Shirley Scott thinks she knows where Walkup and some others on the council will be looking for new funds to help pay for additional street repair and resurfacing.

"I believe the strategy will be to impose a user fee on new development to pay for lots of things, including street maintenance," Scott says. The southeast-side council representative predicts the user fee study now being conducted for the city will recommend the fee when released in a few months.

Unlike impact fees of thousands of dollars imposed on new residential and commercial construction, which under the law must be spent near where the funds are generated, a similar amount of user fees can be employed anywhere. In Scott's opinion, that is why the City Council several months ago adopted a water system user fee for new hookups, and will look at the same solution to pay for better street maintenance and a host of other issues. One result, she thinks, will be that new development will be taxed to help maintain all city streets.

Expressing her displeasure with the concept, Scott says, "Excuse me, but this just shows poor planning on the city's part," while adding of the user fee idea: "The eastside (where much new development occurs) would pay heavily" to fix everyone's potholes in Tucson.

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