Road Test

Those who ignore transit tax-proposal history are doomed to repeat it.

Those of you in the 85,000 cars and trucks navigating the narrows of North Campbell Avenue and East Grant Road each day, rest assured that City Manager James Keene and his cheerleaders, Mayor Bob Walkup and fellow Republican councilmembers Fred Ronstadt and Kathleen Dunbar, have a plan.

At least, until half of those cars get to Tucson Boulevard or Euclid.

Keene's City Hall crew whipped up a public relations campaign that contained a wholly unscientific citizen poll to help devise traffic improvements. The "Let's Go Tucson" campaign, which more than blurred the line of legal spending in advance of a city public works election, revved up countless citizen advisory meetings that Kenne, the mayor and others then cited to declare that city government was responding to the public.

Walkup's council changed the menu, but his caucus still brags that commuters will get relief if voters approve a transportation plan created by and for them.

To be fair, neither Walkup nor his Republican backfield has declared the $40 million-a-year plan that goes to voters in May a panacea. But they all tout it as effective and necessary.

Voters, however, have been led down this path before and, in turn, have made it a boulevard of broken dreams for the tax-craving city and Pima County government officials.

For all the touted innovation and citizen input, this 10-year proposal hinges on a familiar and despised funding mechanism: a half-cent sales tax. Two countywide transportation plans built upon a half-cent sales tax failed, 57-43 in 1986 and 61-39 in 1990. County voters killed a quarter-cent-per-dollar increase, to build jails and juvenile detention additions, by a more severe margin, 70-30, in 1994.

One of the men behind all three of those Pima County proposals is County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, the talented and accessible engineer who seems to have learned his lesson.

"Use taxes," was his simple answer to the change in the mood of county voters, a majority of whom are in the city, who approved a $350-million transportation improvement plan in 1997 that uses the county's share of state gas taxes to repay bonds. That is the same method, gas taxes, the city has used to pay for transportation improvements.

A successful use tax for jails hasn't been devised, but county voters were willing in 1997 to use property taxes to build the jails and juvenile center they had rejected three years earlier when they were to be financed by an extra penny from consumers for every four dollars spent.

The county's plans in 1986 and 1990 differed. The 1986 plan, backed in a half-million dollar campaign by businesses including banks in Boston and speculators led by Charles H. Keating, was heavy on roads for sprawl, including an outer loop. The 1990 plan boosted buses, bikes and walkways but still contained environmentalist targets like the Snyder Road connection through Sabino Creek to connect Bear and Sabino Canyon roads.

The 1990 plan was marked with the fingerprints of George Miller, then in his fourth term as the Democratic councilmember in northside Ward 3. The plan included a grade-separated intersection at Campbell and Grant and at six other congested intersections. Voters killed the plan, but didn't seem to hold too much of a grudge. Miller was elected, by a plurality, the next year to the first of his two terms as mayor.

Dunbar, who served a single term in the state House of Representatives, defeated Miller's choice for Ward 3, Democrat Paula Aboud, last November, and in the early part of her term she has talked up the transportation plan in radio and television appearances.

She seems particularly emboldened by results of the previous proposals, though she has blended and misstated both the results and the respective plan's components.

CHATTING THIS MONTH with her friend Ronald J. Ulm, the host of the 12-year-old KTKT radio program The John C. Scott Show, Dunbar said voters in the precincts around Campbell-Grant in 1990 showed support for the grade-separated intersection. Appearing on KUAT-TV's weekly Reporters' Roundtable, Dunbar made the same claim for an election she erroneously said occurred in 1985. On another Scott show visit, she said "each and every" Ward 3 precinct supported the plan that had the Campbell-Grant grade-separated intersection. Even if she meant the precincts immediately around Campbell and Grant, she was wrong.

Ronstadt has relied on similar claims, fed by city staff, when backing the sales tax increase during his appearances on the Scott show.

An analysis of the 1990 election canvass shows a different and, for proponents of the current plan, a more troubling picture.

Three of the four precincts around the Campbell-Grant intersection supported the plan. Voters in Catalina Vista, southeast Campbell-Grant, as well as the precincts on the southwest and northeast corners, approved the plan. Voters in the two precincts that share the northwest corner of Campbell-Grant rejected the plan.

In fact only seven--about 15 percent--of the precincts in Ward 3 approved the 1990 transportation plan and its companion sales tax. Miller's north-edge precinct, 212, was one of those, but voters in Dunbar's home precinct east of Campbell and south of Fort Lowell Road rejected it by 14 percentage points. Overall in Dunbar's Ward 3, 55 percent of the voters said no to the 1990 plan and the sales tax.

It carried in just 33 of 344--including four that were anomalous results from the Tohono O'odham Indian Nation that got zero benefit--precincts countywide. Twenty-four of those were in the city, most in a bloc from the Santa Cruz River to Country Club Road between Grant and Broadway. Fourteen were in Ronstadt's midtown Ward 6 then represented by liberal Democrat and neighborhood queen Molly McKasson, and three in westside Ward 1 now represented by Democrat Jose Ibarra. But even in Ward 6, the measure fell 53 percent to 47 percent.

The stark alert is that it carried in not one precinct in Democrat Steve Leal's southside Ward 5, or in the two eastside wards now held by conservative Democrats Shirley Scott and Carol West.

Those are the same eastside wards, in the city's at-large general election, that propped up Dunbar and Ronstadt, who both failed to carry their own wards and own home precincts.

FOR ALL ITS CRITICS, the 1990 plan could appease more today than the current proposal.

Grade-separated intersections, somehow made more palatable under the new name "continuous flow" intersections, were proposed for Grant and Swan roads, Grant and Craycroft roads, Broadway Boulevard and Kolb Road, 22nd Street and Sixth Avenue, 22nd and Kino Parkway and Sixth and Ajo Way.

Under the city's current plan, 45 percent is to be spent on "congestion management," including widenings, the three grade-separated intersections, and other intersection improvements including roomier bus pullouts. Moreover, the new plan is reminiscent of the 1986, developer-driven "outer-loop" feature with multiple improvements to Houghton Road.

In 1990, the county plan devoted 49 percent to roads and roadway improvements.

The new plan proposes 37 percent for long-delayed maintenance to deteriorating neighborhood streets, including new bikeways and sidewalks and cleaner streets under the heading "enhanced street sweeping."

The 1990 plan put $34.5 million, or 9 percent of the total, into bikeways and another 5 percent into pedestrian features.

But the 1990 plan devoted 33 percent, or $120.7 million, to transit including buses, Van Tran and rural transit and 2,000 new Park 'n Ride spaces.

The current plan offers just 18 percent for transit, including new service to Rita Ranch and a pledge for some type of study for light rail

There are other tax lessons from old proposals, but they're not under consideration by City Council.

The .06-percent sales tax voters statewide approved for teacher pay in 2000 passed narrowly here. By precinct, the popular issue failed in West's Ward 2 and got slammed in Scott's Ward 4 on the southeast side 7-1.

Consumers now pay 7.6 percent in total sales tax for items, excluding grocery food and medicine, within the city. The vote in May seeks to increase the city sales tax from the 2 percent that voters agreed to in 1969 at the same time they set a property tax ceiling--never threatened--of $1.75 per $100 of assessed value, or $175 a year for a $100,000 home.

The county lurks. Just 44 precincts of 403 countywide rejected the county's transportation plan, using gas taxes, in 1997. But that plan has been mired by mismanaged schedules, fouled work including destruction of protected ironwood trees, diversion of $10 million for 22nd Street widening, and delays that have driven the price tag to $667 million for 57 projects.

Chief among the solutions for a bailout is the resurrected half-cent sales tax for the county, which has no sales tax. That could change without any say from voters. The Board of Supervisors can levy a sales tax on a simple unanimous vote, something a line of Republican holdouts, Greg Lunn, Paul Marsh and Raymond Carroll, has vetoed since 1990.

Once touted as a way to diversify the county's tax base and to relieve what are the highest property taxes charged by any county in Arizona, the sales tax has re-emerged as a road builder.

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