The Crossroads

What direction will transportation take?

NEXT TIME YOU'RE stuck in traffic, imagine zipping through a grade-separated intersection on a six-lane Grant Road. While you're waiting beneath the beating sun for the next bus, dream of a shuttle that comes right down your street. As you cautiously tread a well-worn footpath as cars whiz by, picture a vast network of sidewalks and bike paths.

Today, those ideas sound like sunstroke delirium--but they're all contained in the Pima Association of Government's 25-year regional transportation plan.

There's one slight problem: The PAG plan, filled with transportation projects planners say we must have but can't afford, costs at least $8.4 billion. PAG officials estimate that there's only $6.6 billion available, leaving a $1.8 billion shortfall.

There's little argument that the metro area's transportation system has not kept pace with the region's rapid growth. Sun Tran struggles to serve the small percentage of people who use the system. Its hours are limited. Routes can't reach our sprawling boundaries. Most bus stops lack any kind of shelter.

Many roads need sidewalks and streetlights. In midtown Tucson, residential streets have been neglected for more than a decade. In the northwestern corridor, rush-hour traffic crawls along cramped two-lane avenues. On the city's southeast side, thousands of homes in more than 38 subdivisions are being built, with four more subdivisions moving forward. By 2050, the State Land Department, which owns much of the land in the area, foresees 320,000 residents in the area.

The challenges are obvious, but solutions remain elusive.

EARLIER THIS YEAR, in his upbeat state of the city speech, Mayor Bob Walkup declared it was time to address Tucson's transportation challenges.

"We are desperate to make up for years of lost planning," Walkup told the crowd of networking politicos, businessmen, real estate dealers, flacks and assorted hangers-on. "The people of Tucson are fed up and want results." As he spoke, a series of maps flashed across big screens in the front of the room, the resolution so washed-out that most of the crowd saw nothing but muddy blurs.

It was an apt reflection of Tucson's troubled transportation picture. Right now, the city is so short on improvement dollars that it can't even cover the cost of maintaining the roads it has, says Tony Paez, who retires this week as the city's transportation director. Paez estimates that the city needs $520 million to meet minimum standards: $200 million for sidewalks, $145 million for lighting major streets and another $85 million for residential streetlights, $60 million for fixing residential streets, and $30 million for arterial street improvements.

Meanwhile, the city's five-year capital improvement budget has only $32 million available for these kinds of projects. "It's a crisis as far as I'm concerned," says Paez, sipping a coffee in the downtown office he's headed for the last five years. "We're on the ropes."

Paez's successor--the city has yet to name a new director--will inherit a struggling department. The city's transportation projects are funded mostly through its share of the state's tax on gasoline, or Highway User Revenue Funds, which are constitutionally restricted to roadways. In the last fiscal year, the city received $37 million in HURF funds, but with Maricopa County communities growing at a faster clip than Tucson, Paez expects the amount of state gas funds to sink in the near future.

Bonds are an additional albeit limited resource; in 1994, Tucson voters approved a $70 million transportation bond package, and last year they approved $10 million for new lighting and an additional $25 million for streets, which will be mostly used to widen intersections around town.

Where can the city find additional funds? The PAG plan calls for increased funding from a higher state gas tax, a dedicated local quarter-cent sales tax dedicated to transit, and development impact fees of at least $2,500 per new home across Pima County.

State officials are talking about a hike in the gas tax (more on that later), but it's still a long way off. Impact fees, meanwhile, remain off the table at City Hall. When Walkup ran for office two years ago, he said the community didn't need impact fees because he would be able to persuade the state legislature to provide the city with more road dollars; instead, projections show we'll get less money.

Walkup's new strategy is a half-cent sales tax, which would raise roughly $40 million annually. He's been quietly leading an effort to hammer out a plan he hopes to take to the voters next May. While Walkup's precise preferences remain unknown, City Manager James Keene recently recommended splitting the money between maintaining existing streets, widening some arterial streets and intersections, and public transit. Keene suggested major road-building projects inside the city limits would have to wait for increased state funding following future tax increases.

At a meeting earlier this month, the City Council brought the plan out from behind closed doors, voting to start a public process to shape next spring's transportation proposition. But even with a public process, history shows it'll be a challenge to persuade local voters to boost the sales tax for transportation spending. In 1986, a road-heavy plan was shot down by 57 percent of the voters; in 1990, a plan balanced between roads and alternative transportation modes lost by 61 percent. Walkup is gambling that attitudes have changed in the last decade.

In his public comments, Walkup has touted grade-separated intersections, or, as he recently dubbed them, "constant-flow intersections." GSIs have long been pushed as a solution to Tucson's traffic problems; the transportation department has for the last decade backed an intersection that would take Grant Road beneath Campbell Avenue.

But everyone concedes that the city would need a series of GSIs on Grant Road and around town for them to relieve congestion effectively. The intersections, currently priced between $20 million and $27 million apiece, don't come cheap. Nor are they just an engineering feat; they remain a political challenge. Under the city's Neighborhood Protection Amendment, voters would have to approve plans for the interchanges.

The Grant Road project's overall cost might be tough for voters to swallow. Besides the $70 million or so for GSIs at Campbell, Swan and Craycoft, there's an enormous price tag for acquiring the right-of-way to expand Grant Road to six lanes. The widening between I-10 and Swan Road is estimated to cost at least $100 million.

While $10.7 million is available from Pima County's 1997 bond package for widening just the short stretch of Grant between Park Avenue and Oracle Road, that project alone is estimated to cost $28 million. Ben Goff, deputy director of transportation for Pima County, says the cash-strapped City of Tucson will have to come up with the $18 million balance for the road work.

And Grant Road represents just one piece of the puzzle. The city's Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee, charged with helping the City Council develop transportation policy, recently voted to support the development of a three-tiered system of arterial streets: cross-town parkways for long trips; major arterial streets like we have today; and streets devoted primarily to transit use. That proposal will soon be in front of the council.

Dale Calvert, chair of the committee, thinks the city needs three limited-access parkways running east-west, with another three running north-south. For the east-west corridors, he leans toward Grant Road, Barraza-Aviation Parkway and Valencia Road. While no list has been finalized for the north-south possibilities, Campbell Avenue, Alvernon Way and Craycroft, Wilmot and Kolb roads are each shown as six lanes on PAG's 2025 plan.

The booming southeastern corner of the city will also require major road construction. Without a plan that addresses the impact of the thousands of new homes planned to be built in the next two decades, the area could soon be facing the same "nightmare of congestion" found in the community's northwestern corridor, says City Councilmember Shirley Scott, who estimates the widening of Houghton Road alone will cost at least $42 million.

The PAG plan calls for a number of four-lane roadways in the area, including Houghton, Harrison and Pantano running north-south and Old Spanish Trail, Irvington and Valencia running east-west. The estimated price tag to handle all this new growth? At least $230 million over the next quarter-century. Like any figure for future road work, that shaky estimate is probably too low.

"Those who live here now are already complaining about the lack of infrastructure and the lack of planning for their needs right now, let alone the new people," Scott says.

ALL THOSE HUNDREDS of millions of dollars are just for the roads that planners say we'll need within the city limits. They don't begin to cover the cost of public transit, which also falls under the purview of the city's transportation department.

Although it gets little attention, the cost of Van Tran, the city's service for the disabled, has steadily climbed as Tucson has expanded its borders. Today, city taxpayers subsidize the system with more than $5 million a year, with passengers paying only a tiny fraction of the actual cost of a ride.

Tucson's Sun Tran system mainly operates from dawn to dusk, with a few late runs down major corridors. It goes as far east as Harrison Road, west to Greasewood Road and La Cholla Boulevard; a special route goes north to the town of Oro Valley, and Tucson International Airport is the system's southern terminus.

Roughly 2 percent of the region's daily trips are taken on the bus. These riders covered about 22 percent of the cost of operating the Sun Tran system last year, a few points shy of the city's goal of 25 percent. An additional $17 million comes from the city's general fund.

Bus boosters, who have been dismayed by the city's recent moves to trim service while raising fares, howled last month, when the council voted to cut several Sun Tran routes on the south and west sides of town while increasing northwest service, with the county picking up the tab for the expansion. But the council majority that voted in favor of the proposal said it was the first step in a major realignment of the system.

In car-crazed Tucson, where registered motor vehicles outnumber licensed drivers, low-density development is generally blamed for the low percentage of Sun Tran riders. Still, past and present figures don't deter transit proponents, who point to the fact that a better transit system topped the list of priorities in the sustainable-community survey conducted by the city in the late 1990s. Some argue that the auto is easily the city's most subsidized form of transportation.

Mass transit advocate Steve Farley, a graphic designer whose tilework of historic photos graces the Broadway underpass leading into downtown, has spent the last year on a citizen committee that considered alternatives for Fifth/Sixth Street. He'd like to see the street dropped down to one lane in each direction, with wide bike lanes and frequent buses. Someday, he'd even like to see a light-rail line down the street.

A big rail booster who bikes to meetings across the city, Farley isn't deterred by the potential costs of a system, which he estimates could ring up between $20 million and $30 million a mile. He says the federal government can subsidize up to 80 percent of the cost of rail projects, which has led 20 major communities across the country to embrace light rail in the last decade, including Dallas, San Diego and Salt Lake City. Even in Phoenix and Tempe, residents voted to support a quarter-cent sales tax for public transit that's being used to build a light-rail line across the Maricopa County communities.

"It seems embarrassing that Phoenix did it, and we aren't even talking about it," says Farley, who is spearheading Citizens for Sensible Transportation, an organization dedicated to developing a light rail system. Last month, the group met in the basement of downtown's El Charro restaurant to discuss the possibility of light rail. More than 50 people showed up, and 40 of them volunteered to help. He's encouraged by the turnout. "People were really, really motivated," he says.

He's anticipating much public debate over transportation for the rest of the year. "In the next six months, a lot of this is going to come together somehow or another," says Farley, who hopes a broad cross-section of the community will participate in the transportation planning process.

IN UNINCORPORATED PIMA County, the region's other major transportation department is implementing a 12-year, $470 million road bond package approved by voters four years ago. Of this amount, $350 million was to come from bonds repaid by gas taxes, with the remainder from a variety of sources, including impact fees and federal, state and local funds.

It's been a rough year for the county transportation department. First, while widening Thornydale Road, workers bulldozed hundreds of trees in endangered pygmy owl habitat, embarrassing officials who have been preaching conservation with the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. Then, when the county didn't spend bond money fast enough, it had to forfeit nearly $1 million in accrued interest to the federal government.

As County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry stepped up criticism of transportation director Brooks Keenan, the embattled staffer fired back, accusing Huckelberry and two county supervisors, Dan Eckstrom and Raúl Grijalva, of steering four contracts over six years to firms that had provided political support. All three denied the charges and have been under investigation by outside agencies, which have yet to issue any findings.

In April, Keenan quit his county job; last month, he landed a position as a project manager in the city's transportation department. The county, like the city, is still searching for a new director of its transportation department.

The internal acrimony has served to distract from a more fundamental problem with the bond package: Voters aren't getting the promised bang for the buck. Ben Goff, the county transportation department's point man on the bond projects, estimates the total cost of the package's 58 projects has risen to more than $700 million. Goff guesses that as little as 75 percent of the promised work can actually be completed. He blames the increased cost on overly optimistic right-of-way estimates, oversights and inflation.

Thanks to the financial shortfall, Goff says some projects may be rethought or deleted entirely. Two possible cuts: widening Grant Road between Oracle and Park and expanding Broadway to six lanes from Euclid to Campbell. Since both projects lie inside the city limits, Tucson officials may have to choose between the two. That could prove a tough political call, since some of them fought hard for the projects. In 1997, when the county asked voters to support the bond package, then-Mayor George Miller and other council members refused to support the package until the two city projects were included.

In the next year, Pima County plans to rev up the bond program, spending more than $70 million on road work, mostly on the booming northwest side. The major efforts now underway: widening River Road between First and Campbell avenues, Thornydale Road between Ina and Cortaro Farms roads, La Cholla Boulevard from Ruthrauff to Ina roads, and Shannon Road from Ina to Magee roads.

Along with the road work, the county plans to spend more than $4 million for traffic safety improvements in the next 12 months. The additional need for road maintenance, new traffic signals and lighting at major intersections will increase the costs of running the transportation department. Without additional funding, says Goff, "by the end of the bond program, we'll be in the same situation as the city, where we can only pay debt service and maintain what we have."

To produce more transportation revenue, Goff favors increasing the county's $1,550-per-home impact fee. He also wants to expand the fee to areas that are now exempt, including the region south of I-10 and east of Wilmot Road, as well as the growing neighborhoods in the unincorporated areas near Mission and Valencia roads. "They've gotten a free ride for four or five years, but it's time now to put them in the pot."

Goff notes that impact fees have generated about $11 million since the Board of Supervisors approved them in 1996. "That's enough to build two miles of road, but since there are presently seven impact areas, it doesn't do much in any one of them," he says.

The Board of Supervisors is soon scheduled to again take up the delicate political topic of impact fees. "If we want to stay even," say Goff, "we must increase the amount. What amount it should be, however, is a political question."

THE SMALLER TOWNS in the region have their own transportation challenges. Oro Valley gets most of its transportation funding through state HURF funds, supplemented since 1997 with impact fees. The fees, which climbed last year from $1,494 to $2,008 per new home, have raised about $6 million. The affluent northwest-side community is widening two miles of First Avenue between Oracle and Tangerine roads and wants to extend La Cañada Drive, continue work on Lambert Lane, and widen Tangerine Road to four lanes between Oracle and La Cañada. If the cost is within reach, the town hopes to create a local shuttle system to tie in to Sun Tran.

In neighboring Marana, road funds also come from the state. Just this year, Marana began charging roughly $2,400 per home in its southern Continental Ranch area. With its road money, the town plans to widen Cortaro Farms Road from I-10 to Silverbell Road, enlarge Ina Road on both sides of the interstate, and improve Thornydale Road between Orange Grove Road and Horizon Hills.

Surrounded by its bigger neighbor, South Tucson is focused on rehabbing aging streets. The town is sprucing up 10th Avenue with sidewalks, street lights and landscaping.

Further south, the small but booming town of Sahuarita has a long wish-list of projects. But the only major work the town can afford is a $2.5 million extension of La Villita Road to Nogales Highway. The big project on the horizon is a planned freeway that would connect I-10 to I-19, creating a shortcut for international truck traffic that now must travel into Tucson to head east to Texas and beyond.

The other big spender in our region is the Arizona Department of Transportation, which plans to roll out tens of millions of dollars in the Tucson metro area in the near future continuing to widen I-10. The state will begin work on a $60 million reconstruction of the I-10/I-19 interchange, as well as a redesign of the Duval Road interchange on I-19. ADOT will also be spending money on more studies of our future transportation needs.

OUR REGION'S TRANSPORTATION challenges mirror problems in Maricopa County, where an elaborate freeway system still struggles to handle congestion. At rush hour, new highway lanes clog as soon as they open.

As transportation pressures build around the state, Gov. Jane Dee Hull's Vision 21 taskforce has been studying Arizona's future transportation needs. The committee is now collecting public comments on its draft proposals, but the preliminary conclusions aren't surprising.

Projecting a 48 percent increase in state population over the next two decades, task force members predict there will be a $20 billion shortfall in meeting Arizona's transportation needs--and that figure includes only projects of statewide significance, not locally funded programs.

Relying overwhelmingly on expanding and enhancing the current asphalt network, the draft state plan plays with a lot of numbers: One version adds 10 cents to every gallon of gas, asks voters to approve a gradual three-quarters-of-a-cent increase in the state sales tax and imposes a statewide impact fee of $1,000 per home. The projected yearly cost of the new taxes for the average household with a $40,000 annual income and two cars would be $205.

DESPITE ALL THE ANTICIPATED COSTS, SOME OBSERVERS argue that Tucson's transportation picture isn't as bad as it looks. They point to the billion bucks in the pipeline between now and 2006.

Others say that in Tucson, where the average speed on major streets is 37 miles per hour, the traffic congestion problem is more perception than reality. They argue that the community's traffic problems occur at select intersections at prime commuting hours. Even Tony Paez concedes that some newcomers, used to lengthy commutes in other states, don't see a problem in Tucson, but he adds that they can't understand why the community doesn't have more freeways.

Farley points out that the city staff says an intersection is unacceptably congested if drivers have to wait 45 seconds or more at a traffic signal once a day--a fairly liberal definition. But he says problems lurk down the road. "I lived in San Francisco, I lived in L.A.," he says. "I lived in places that are really congested. But I think we're headed that way. ... We want to be able to look at our options now and get things done before we're in a total crisis mode."

City Councilman Jerry Anderson, who is retiring from his Ward 3 seat this year, remains a big transit booster. He wants the bus system to incorporate smaller buses running through neighborhoods and feeding into Sun Tran's main routes. To cover the costs of this shuttle service and other transit improvements, Anderson suggested the city ask voters to approve a quarter-cent sales tax this November, but he now says the election ought to happen in May.

Anderson thinks a quarter-cent sales tax could pass, but the proposed half-cent hike "is a big mistake. Splitting the money three ways between maintenance, transit and new construction will only result in still-congested streets and a few more buses. But it is a political easy fix with not much thought required. Chances are the half-cent sales tax election will fail anyway."

Others say the sales tax say is a lousy mechanism for raising road dollars. "We need more money for transportation and additional sources of funding are necessary, but not a sales tax increase," says Bonnie Poulos, a longtime member of the Citizen Transportation Advisory Committee who now sits on the city's Planning Commission. "It is unfair to raise revenue that way. With a sales tax increase, we'll end up throwing a few million dollars at transportation and not solve anything. Why can't we pay to improve transportation with a tax at the gas pump? We need to change the gas tax restrictions so those who use the roads and pollute the air pay for the improvements."

Tres English, an ardent opponent of the 1986 transportation sales-tax proposition but who co-chaired the 1990 BAJA proposal, says solutions are elusive across America.

"Almost no community has solved its congestion problem and it is dawning on people that maybe no one knows how to do that," says English, whose current proposal requires a drastic change in current land-use arrangement.

"We need a real alternative, not just a debate over how we will travel an increasing distance," he suggests. "The alternative isn't to spend $100 billion to travel six to 10 billion miles per year by bus or freeway or light rail, it's to travel less. ... We should make small changes in land uses to create 100 urban village centers that are connected to their neighborhoods by bike/pedestrian networks, and to each other by a great bus system. That is the alternative we need and can afford."

English predicts that in the next quarter-century, worldwide oil production will taper off and gasoline will become more costly. "There will be less driving and it will be much more expensive regardless of what we do. It will take more time and more money, and more congestion is guaranteed. Today is the best day we'll have for transportation and it will only get worse."

Poulos has her own gloomy forecast. "In 25 years, there will be a lot worse congestion and people will give in to freeways, which don't solve anything. We'll have a decaying inner city caused by traffic and congestion, which will eat the area up."

Dale Calvert agrees that by 2025 Tucson's congestion will worsen. "The transit system will be expanded, but not as much as people would like it to be, and there will be a few new streets. We'll move forward incrementally. I'm not sure impact fees will ever be in place, but there will be greater gas and sales taxes for transportation."

Tony Paez is confident voters will soon pass that sales tax, "because we're like Phoenix was in 1986," when Maricopa County voters approved a sales tax for transportation.

Jerry Anderson doesn't even hazard a guess when asked what the future holds. "I have no idea where we'll be in 25 years," he says. "Technology is going to define some issues. Work at home will increase and that will help somewhat. There will certainly be less-polluting vehicles. But who knows? Things are changing too fast to predict."