Road Show

Council candidates tackle transportation.

When Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup declared transportation issues would be at the top of his agenda this year, he said city residents were at a breaking point.

"The people of Tucson are fed up and want results," Walkup said.

Unfortunately, results cost money, which is in short supply these days. The transportation department needs an estimated $520 million just to meet minimum standards for residential streets, sidewalks, streetlights and arterial streets, but the city's five-year capital improvement budget has only $32 million available for these kinds of projects.

The city will also need to build expensive new roads on its southeastern corner, where state officials are planning a community of as many as 320,000 new residents between now and 2050. The best guess says that the arterials in that area will cost at least $230 million over the next quarter century.

Then there's the cost of a mass transit system that struggles to serve the ever-expanding community. The budget is so stretched that last month bus drivers went on a two-week strike.

The news gets worse. As Maricopa County grows faster than Pima County, more state transportation dollars are being spent there. And the state's recent budget crunch will squeeze those dollars even tighter.

As Tony Paez, who stepped down as chief of the city's transportation department earlier this year, says, "We're on the ropes."

Earlier this month, a newly appointed, 14-member citizen committee was created by the council to recommend a new plan of transportation improvements and funding options. While it's charged with all potential funding alternatives, the committee is expected to put together a plan to ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax, which would raise an estimated $40 million a year for transportation improvements.

Ward 6 Councilmember Fred Ronstadt, who is facing Democrat Gayle Hartmann in the November 6 general election, is waiting to see what the committee recommends before taking a strong stance on transportation issues, but says the city will need a combination of better roads and better mass transit. He says the committee should explore all alternatives and return with a proposal sometime in November (and after the election). He hesitates to say the city should ask voters to increase the sales tax, saying it can perhaps find another revenue source that could raise $40 million a year, such as advertising on buses and bus shelters.

Hartmann agrees that the city needs to both improve streets and the bus system. She says she'd like to see most of the revenue from any new sales tax money spent on existing roads and mass transit, with 10 percent set aside for open space. Trying to deal with transportation issues without dealing with land use, she says, "is like trying to lose weight by loosening your belt."

Hartmann supports concentric impact fees that increase as projects move further from existing infrastructure. Ronstadt remains opposed to an impact fee, but says he supports "the process we have been using in current zoning cases where we put an actual price tag on the infrastructure and have the developer pay their fair share."

In Ward 3, where Democrat Paula Aboud, Republican Kathleen Dunbar and Libertarian Jonathan Hoffman are vying to replace the retiring Jerry Anderson, the candidates split sharply on transportation issues.

Dunbar is holding off judgment on the city's transportation plan until she sees the final proposal from the new citizen panel, but she says she thinks most of the sales tax should go into the Back to Basics program "until all of the neighborhoods in the core of the city have had a chance to have their neighborhoods' streets improved and sidewalks and street lights fixed or added as the case may be."

In the long term, Dunbar supports developing three major east-west and three major north-south thoroughfares, preferably with grade-separated intersections that would allow one street to run beneath another at major intersections.

Complaining that the city has "no vision" on road construction, Aboud is calling for more citizen input to study the problem and propose solutions. She would oppose a half-cent sales-tax proposition unless the city creates an impact fee for new development. (Aboud would support a quarter-cent sales tax dedicated to mass transit.)

Dunbar opposes impact fees, saying they'd discourage infill--even though the city limits includes vast acres of vacant state land slated for development.

Hoffman, reflecting his Libertarian bent, says there's a better way to fund transportation improvements than a half-cent sales tax. "I would like to see spending cut, or eliminated, in areas such as charitable donations and grants, social engineering (non-profits), land purchasing (eastside ranches) and business operations (Udall health club, Tucson golf courses)," Hoffman states. "Though this would free up millions of dollars, it may not be enough to make up for the years of mismanagement on the part of the city; but I would consider new revenue sources only after these steps are taken."

Hoffman loves cars and says Tucsonans do as well. "Tucson's city government should work toward improving the quality of Tucson streets and easing congestion," he says. "A couple of obvious ways are creating bus pull-outs and focusing less on 'beautification' of medians and more on adequate left-turn bays."

Hoffman is the only candidate to support an east-west freeway. "It would enhance automobile travel," he says.

KATHLEEN DUNBAR IS sitting in a midtown café on a hot June afternoon, criticizing Tucson's bus system. During a summer meeting with Sun Tran officials, Dunbar says it took 45 minutes of studying a bus map to figure out how she'd get downtown from her home near Tucson Boulevard and Fort Lowell Road. Once they'd figured out the route, they concluded it would take her more than two hours to reach her destination. (Given that Dunbar lives within a 10-minute walk of three bus lines that run to downtown's Ronstadt Transit Center, it's a troubling reflection on both Dunbar and Sun Tran management.)

The system is so dysfunctional, she says, that she wouldn't even know where to find a Sun Tran map.

An eavesdropping customer suddenly appears at the table.

"If you're looking for a bus schedule, here's one," says the balding man.

"Where'd you get that?" Dunbar asks.

"On the bus," he replies. "They also have them at the transit stations."

Dunbar asks the man if he finds riding the bus convenient.

"I don't have a car," he says, "so it's more convenient than walking."

His suggestion for a better system? "We need more buses, more parts of towns more frequently, late at night and on weekends."

Sounds like the ideal solution. But a tight transit budget prevents the city from expanding service. And with the limited system, few people find riding a bus a reasonable alternative to driving their own car. Roughly 2 percent of trips in Tucson are taken by bus.

None of the candidates say they'd cut routes or raise fares. Both Ronstadt and Hartmann support expanding the service. Hartmann says the city needs more express buses.

Dunbar supports "thinking outside the box and looking for ways to make it more convenient for people to take the bus." She suggests a system of neighborhood buses that connect with major routes.

Aboud wants a portion of any sales tax to expand bus service, "especially to the far southeast side of town, which has paid taxes for so long without receiving any bus service."

Hoffman says he would encourage the private sector to augment bus service with shuttle services.

The candidates are cautious about a new proposal for a light-rail system. The recently formed Tucsonans for Sensible Transportation has proposed a $455 million light-rail system featuring two main lines running out of downtown: one east along Sixth Street and Broadway to Prudence Road and one running along South Sixth Avenue to the Laos Transit Center at Irvington Road. The rail lines would be supplemented by an improved bus system that would include shorter waits at stops for riders and longer hours of operation. (For details on the light rail proposal, point your Web browser to

Ronstadt says he wants to take a "serious look" at light rail. "It's a great idea," he says.

Hartmann strikes a similar stance. "It is a very interesting idea," she says. "I want to be as certain as possible that it will work here before wholeheartedly supporting it."

In Ward 3, the candidates are more skeptical.

"I do not currently support building light rail," Aboud says. "I would like to study the issue more."

Dunbar doubts light rail is possible because of the community's low density. "I love the idea, but I don't see how we can afford light rail, or how it could work," she says.

Hoffman is the only candidate to dismiss it outright. "Light rail is a proven transit failure," he says.