Run Over

County officials bicker over road improvements that are both expensive and stalled.

If all eyes on Pima County are focused on the aggressive Comprehensive Land Use Plan and more aggressive, 1.2 million-acre Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, that's fine with the Board of Supervisors and county administration groping for ways to unstick the transportation improvement program.

Four years and six weeks after voters approved a $350 million transportation bond program using, for the first time in county history, gas tax revenue, the plan is mired in delay, cost overruns and mismanagement that has stopped work on some projects without notice to or approval from the Board of Supervisors.

The plan sold to voters has now ballooned to $667 million, a 42 percent increase from the $470 million the 57-project plan was estimated to cost, according to a report detailing the bond program County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry presented to supervisors last week.

Huckelberry, whose 28-year county career includes long stretches as transportation chief and nine years as the top executive, repeatedly assured supervisors that the county has never failed to deliver on bond projects, though some have been five or more years late.

There is not much room for optimism.

IN THE LAST 27 years, county voters have approved more than a half a billion dollars in bonds for road projects, only to be ensnared in traffic on nearly all routes. In four elections, in 1974, 1979, 1980 and 1986, voters approved a total of $154.6 million in transportation projects. Seven months after the successful 1986 bond election, voters gave Huckelberry and the county the first of two defeats on half-cent sales tax increases to pay for transportation improvements. The first, defeated 57-43, would have funded a 20-year, $1 billion plan that critics said was an incubator for sprawl with its outer loop. The next, in 1990, boosted conventional transit and alternatives but was defeated 61-39.

But the 1997 road bonds passed easily and are 2.2 times greater than the total of the previous four bond elections and nearly 5.5 times greater than the next single largest transportation bond.

Voters, despite their generosity, were stalled the very day they approved the bonds. Regional transportation needs, for which there isn't a dime pledged, would cost $6 billion over the next 25 years.

Huckelberry concedes that the 1997 bond program fails today to meet one-fifth of what is needed.

Review by the Board of Supervisors came months after the already-frayed cooperation needed for the regional improvements was finally ripped.

City contributions to the county bond projects are short by $102 million. When city officials sought to move money for 22nd Street widening from Interstate 10 to South Park Avenue, Democratic Supervisor Dan Eckstrom swiftly won board approval to move $10 million of county bond funds for the project to southside neighborhood improvements.

Now the city is going alone.

Republican Mayor Bob Walkup's City Council is marching ahead with a 10-year, $400 million transportation program Walkup and council members hope will be financed by a half-cent increase in the city's 2-cents-per-dollar sales tax.

Both governments are pledging renewed cooperation, to be celebrated with a pending joint session, yet the only work undertaken so far is the criticism and sniping the respective governments are tossing at one another. Transportation officials from the city have become experts in the shortfalls and missteps in the county program, and county officials have likewise studied city screw-ups.

Huckelberry delivered last week the first of what is expected to be a quarterly county road bond report. He immediately was clipped for the stoppage his transportation staff ordered on work for the horridly congested Cortaro Farms Road.

Responding to a question from Eckstrom, about supervisors making those types of calls, Huckelberry said: "I obviously have to take full responsibility. And it won't happen again."

Huckelberry got similar marching orders from Eckstrom and fellow Democrats Sharon Bronson and Raúl Grijalva, the board chairman, on one proposal to shift up to $36 million of unspent money in the Transportation Department's operating and maintenance fund.

"I can't approve the shifting of funds," said Bronson, whose largely rural district has constantly cried for road patching and dust control. "We simply aren't doing the job we should be doing."

Eckstrom told Huckelberry to roll back the clock and return to the time when supervisors marshaled the maintenance money in their districts.

"In my district," Eckstrom said, "I want to know what's taking place and what's being recommended rather than having somebody unilaterally at the staff level make a determination as to what they think is in the best interest of the district that I represent."

There were several Eckstrom echoes during the review of the transportation bond. One came from Bronson, who demanded that updates in road projects be provided to the board and also posted on the county's Web site with details on delays, costs, phases and explanations about cost increases.

Comforting to some, not for others, including Ignacio Gomez, a Bronson constituent who was perplexed when Bronson told him not long ago to forget ideas of county improvements to narrow and congested West Valencia Road because, she asserted, it is a state road.

Valencia, actually a county road, is among those on the county bond list and is to be widened from Mark Road to Camino de la Tierra.

With the $36 million raid of the maintenance surplus quashed, Huckelberry said the road plan deficit could be aided by:

· An increase in the county's five-year-old, $1,550-per house impact fee. Doubling it could raise $105 million over the next decade.

· Increased shares of annual gas tax distribution specifically for urban areas that could bring in between $20 million and $30 million more.

IMPACT FEES, ADOPTED over the howls of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, have lingered at a relatively low figure and have generated just $12 million.

Even neutral observers of county government have wondered what has stopped this Board of Supervisors, with its conservation and strong anti-building bent, from jacking up impact fees. Questions mount when considering this board has had no trepidation in levying the highest property taxes of any Arizona county.

Huckelberry says that even with an anticipated drop in the number of new homes in the next 10 years of 30 percent from the previous decade, the current impact fee will bring in $52 million. With 34,000 new homes over the next 10 years, a $3,100 impact fee would raise $105.4 million.

There is a trap.

"Using impact fees to meet program shortfall will not necessarily reduce regional traffic congestion since construction of 34,000 additional residential units will add approximately 200,000 to 300,000 daily vehicle trips to the transportation system," Huckelberry confessed.

Those new trips to work, to the market, to Little League and soccer would mean 1.4 million new miles driven and the need for at least 39 miles of new four-lane roads. Cost: $233 million.

The report made no mention of increased taxes the county receives from new construction, which Huckelberry credits in budget memos over the last two years as having a major role in the county's ability to go from a deficit in 1999 to surpluses in the last two years.

Ray Carroll is the Republican who represents District 4--the eastside and Green Valley. He grates on Huckelberry. They don't like one another.

Hearing the impact fee plea, Carroll said, "It just seems like half a glass, twice."

Carroll repeatedly issued his support for increases in impact fees, but noted the projected deficit of $128 million caused by the new homes.

"Why wouldn't you say 'quadruple them'?" Carroll said.

In restrained sarcasm, Huckelberry answered: "It's possible to quadruple them if that's the board's desire."

Huckelberry also noted that he and his staff recommended in 1995 and 1996 that impact fees be set at $3,100 per house.

The city, which has no construction impact fee, is likely to outstrip the unincorporated area in new homes and could easily raise more money for transportation needs.

"Well, sir," Carroll responded with his own sarcasm, "I don't sit on the City Council. I sit on the Board of Supervisors."

Carroll was skeptical about Huckelberry's hope to grab more money from the gas tax pool specifically assigned for urban roads, a fund known as 12.6 percent monies in the state Highway User Revenue Fund. Revenues from that fund are allocated by the Pima Association of Governments Regional Council, made up of delegates from the county, city, South Tucson, Marana, Oro Valley, Sahuarita and the state.

The county, Huckelberry said, is due more to compensate for its 40 percent of the regional population and because of the county's past willingness to accede to city wishes to grab the bulk of the urban gas taxes to complete the Aviation Parkway.

"Thank you for reminding me of our benevolence to the city," said Eckstrom, who then presided over the PAG council. "I think there are a lot of Johnny Come Latelys who don't remember and need to be reminded."

The city, for the previous period, received 82 percent of the urban gas tax fund or $146.2 million, while the county received $17 million.

Carroll said securing the votes at PAG, which is chaired by his Republican colleague Ann Day, would be tough because each of the other jurisdictions has "overburdened transportation systems they would like to cure."

Voting members of PAG likely won't share the justification to "part with a major share of those funds in order to shore up our bond package."

As to the goodwill from the county's supposed gracious move to allow the city the bulk of previous shares for Aviation Parkway, Carroll asked for tapes of the meetings, memos or other records.

"If," Huckelberry snapped, "you're asking for a written contract, it doesn't exist. It's an issue of integrity."

Said Carroll: "I hope a handshake works. I was in business for some time and I knew handshakes weren't worth anything. It was always a written contract."

Carroll, before being tabbed by Grijalva in 1997 to fill the vacancy left by the death of John Even, was a mid-level agent with Grubb & Ellis Commercial Real Estate.

Carroll said the county should push for a local gas tax, rather than seek a sales tax or depend on increases in shares of the state-imposed gas taxes. A Pima County-exclusive gas tax would require complicated but not impossible state legislation.

"Going aggressively after a share of a pot for Southern Arizona doesn't make as much sense as going after the oil companies," Carroll said.

HUCKELBERRY SAID OVERRUNS were due to imprecise estimates, 30 percent off high or low, done as conceptual plans for the bond election.

He got defense from Eckstrom, who said bond estimates have historically been off and costs change further with acquisition costs and other changes. The county would have had to spend millions on detailed design studies to have accurate estimates at the time of the bond vote, Eckstrom said.

The Orange Grove exchange at I-10 and the Union Pacific tracks was approved by voters in 1980, but didn't open until 1991 because of trouble with the railroad and other complications, Huckelberry said.

On River Road, the controversial purchase of property from St. Philip's in the Hills Church was pegged at $176,000 by an independent appraisal. The land for the widening ended up costing $416,789.

Huckelberry also listed as overrun reasons the mitigation measures and federal environmental regulations.

Carroll wasn't buying. He noted that the county has long had the mitigation ordinance, adopted 15 years ago, to reduce noise and other impacts from road construction and new traffic.

But Huckelberry said walls to muffle noise along Ina Road boosted costs well above estimates.

Carroll said he wondered if citizen advisory committees could then "sink" some projects with costly demands.

Federal regulations, Carroll said, were of no surprise and on the books for long periods. He did concede that neither Huckelberry nor his staff could have anticipated the dramatic impact pygmy owl habitat protection has meant for improvements to Thornydale Road on the northwest side.

Carroll also viewed skeptically some estimates and updates on the individual projects.

South 12th Avenue widening from 38th to Los Reales, one of Grijalva's pet projects, was sold to voters as a $9 million job. It has periodically jumped as high as $40 million, though Huckelberry told the Weekly in August that "reality" had set in and limited the project to $9 million.

Using figures Huckelberry provided listing planning and design at 10 percent to 15 percent of the overall costs, Carroll noted that $1.18 million has been spent on design and $576,195 for planning. Carroll asked if that meant the project would cost $17 million.

Moreover, public art, by law limited to 1 percent of county bond projects, was listed as only 9-percent complete with $39,609 already spent. Carroll asked if the public art, at 1 percent, would total $400,000.

On a Sahuarita drainage project on the bond election for $1.5 million, Carroll asked how design costs are listed in the report as "zero percent complete" and yet have cost $58,000 so far.

"It's a prior-year expenditure," Huckelberry explained.

On another project complicated by longstanding drainage problems at Wetmore and Ruthrauff, from La Cholla to Fairview, Carroll questioned why design at $1.38 million was 28 times greater than planning.

Huckelberry said that the project includes the greatest number of residential and commercial relocations.

Carroll said the report and future updates on transportation bond phases should include that detail. He urged Huckelberry to make liberal use of asterisks.

The Wetmore project also provides a glimpse at the anatomy of road bond work and how contractors make up for low bids.

Tetra Tech, formerly Collins-Pina, has as its point man in Tucson Raul Pina, who was the chairman of the committee that handled the political campaign for the road and other county bonds in 1997. He also is a steady political benefactor of Grijalva.

Awarded a $787,590 contract for Wetmore, Tetra Tech jacked up its fees 65 percent to $1.3 million. Tetra Tech filed four change orders totaling $513,761 through last year.

Eyeing a project across town, widening a half mile of Golf Links between Bonanza and Houghton roads, on the bond ballot for $2.5 million, Carroll noted that the report lists planning as complete for $76,353 and design completed for $276,570, yet construction nearly half completed at just $194,279.

Carroll asked if construction would cost only $388,558.

Huckelberry answered that this Golf Links project is one shared with the city.

On the Sunrise Drive widening from Craycroft Road to Kolb Road, Carroll noted that planning is completed at $7,452 but design is only 1 percent complete at $614,931, leading Carroll to ask if he could expect $6 million in design fees.

"Whose design are we using?" Carroll asked. "Is this another one on the shelf, dusted off?"

Not amused, Huckelberry said simply: "That's obviously an error."

Huckelberry, overseeing the landmark conservation plan, has not had the time to get his usual accuracy in road projects listed in a report replete with the type of inconsistencies raised by Carroll.

Day, elected last year to succeed Republican Mike Boyd in central and foothills District 1, also was not amused. Nor was she supportive of Carroll.

Bitter about his probing, Day asked for "two minutes" toward the end of the session. "Nothing like Supervisor Carroll who took an hour and a half," Day said.

While the entire session on roads, at an admittedly marathon board meeting, took about 100 minutes, Carroll had the floor for about 46 minutes. During the opening portion, covering 33 minutes, Carroll spoke or asked questions for just 11 minutes.

Bronson also was not pleased with Carroll.

Assuming the chair while Grijalva took a break, Bronson tried unsuccessfully to cut Carroll off, saying he could have his questions answered privately by Huckelberry

Apologetic and effusive toward Huckelberry and the Democrats, Day said Carroll should not expect any more time in the future.

"Supervisor Bronson," Day reported, "leaned over and said never again would she put it [transportation] on the agenda."

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment