Streets of Ire

Hang onto your wallet. Your growth bill is due again.

There's a $61 billion bump in the road ahead. Last week, Gov. Jane Dee Hull's Vision 21 transportation task force released its estimated price tag for transportation improvements over the next 20 years: a little more than $61 billion, with 81 percent of that slated for the asphalt that's needed to keep our car-crazy culture humming.

The big problem? Current forecasts show that there's about $41 billion available over the next two decades from state and federal revenue streams, which means we've got a $20 billion shortfall. How do we make it up? The task force is talking about:

· a 10-cents-per-gallon gas tax hike. Seem steep? It's the part of the plan that makes the most sense. The gas tax is as close as you can get to a user fee without toll roads. Besides, the gas tax has sat at 18 cents a gallon since the early '90s; it would take 13 cents just to adjust it for inflation. The state could nudge it even higher, so that it would take pressure off strategy No. 2 ...

· a three-fourths-of-a-cent statewide sales-tax increase. Added to the recently passed six-tenths-of-a-cent education increase, it would bring the state sales tax to a nice round 6.35 percent (rising to 8.35 percent in the Tucson city limits). Although this is essentially regressive, hitting low-income Arizonans harder than the wealthy, don't be surprised to see it pass at the ballot box in the next few years. With their current half-cent sales tax set to expire in 2005, the increase would be close to a wash for Maricopa County voters, who have the political clout to pass a statewide tax even if the rural counties vote against it. And since the legislature will decide the formula for doling out the money, do you see much of it trickling back out of Maricopa once it gets there? Pima County will remain at the mercy of state lawmakers.

· impact fees. More on that in a minute, but first, a look at the local picture.

The Pima Association of Governments recently released a 25-year transportation plan costing some $10.7 billion. The PAG staff estimates that with the existing revenue streams, there will be about $6.6 billion available, leaving a 38 percent shortfall. PAG likewise calls for sales taxes, gas taxes and impact fees, which the group estimates could bring in another $1.8 billion, leaving a shortfall of a mere $2.3 billion.

Ease of evasion makes it necessary for a gas tax to work statewide. But Pima County or the City of Tucson could enact its own transportation sales tax, which voters have rejected twice since 1986. The City Council considered a sales tax hike ranging between a quarter-cent and half-cent for roads and transit last year, but tabled the idea. If either the city or the county wants a sales tax, they'd better get it on the ballot before the state does, because voters here aren't gonna pass more than one hike.

As far as impact fees go, dream on. Although they top $10,000 in some Maricopa County communities, development fees terrify Pima County politicians. They hover around a paltry $1,500 in unincorporated Pima County and Oro Valley, considerably lower than the $2,435 fee passed last month for the southern portion of Marana. The Pima County Board of Supervisors has put the question of steeper fees on hold during the development of the long-range Pima County Conservation Plan, postponing the hard questions until mañana.

The Tucson City Council simply ignores impact fees. Mayor Bob Walkup, who has put transportation at the top of his agenda this year, still opposes them altogether; during his campaign, he argued that as a Republican mayor, he'd be able to persuade the legislature to send more transportation dollars to Tucson. Instead, says city Transportation Director Tony Paez, state funding is likely to decrease.

The bottom line: The PAG plans count on $228 million in local impact fees over the next 25 years. Without 'em, you get a lot less road or a lot more taxes.

AND THAT'S JUST THE transportation bill. Last week, the City Council also approved an overall 4.2 percent increase in water rates. Seems we've been so successful in conserving water that Tucson Water has to raise the price to cover the cost of reading all those new meters. Sorry, suckers!

Get used to it. Tucson Water Director Dave Modeer says we can expect 4 percent hikes every year for the foreseeable future as Tucson Water makes up for lost time. In recent years, the utility's image was so bad that it didn't dare ask for rate increases. Now that the waters have calmed, management figures the time is right to reach for your wallet.

Across the street, the Pima County Board of Supervisors are raising sewer rates by 5 percent. The county plans to spend roughly $57 million to expand the county's treatment facilities, so expect annual increases for that service as well.

But that's not all! Back in the city, more fees loom in the future. The city's Solid Waste Department has an estimated $60 million job ahead cleaning up old landfills and expanding the current one. Where's the money going to come from? Council members remain opposed to a fee for garbage pickup, but they are supportive of an "environmental fee." Expect either one to be paid in U.S. dollars--yours.

Higher sales taxes, higher gas taxes, higher water rates, higher sewer rates, new environmental fees--it's a lot to take in all at once. Why not seek a brief escape in the tranquil oasis of Sabino Canyon? Just remember it'll cost five bucks to park.