Under a Tax

With its half-cent sales-tax proposal, the city plans an end run around the Neighborhood Protection Amendment.

The Tucson City Council gave the nod to asking voters to approve a half-cent sales tax next May to primarily expand roads and repair existing streets, voting 6-0 earlier this week to direct City Manager James Keene to return this Monday, December 10, with ballot language for final approval.

If city voters approve the half-cent hike, which would increase the sales tax within the city to 8.1 percent beginning in July, the city would have an estimated $40 million a year for transportation spending for the next decade.

Under the plan, mass transit funding would be limited to just 18 percent of the new revenues, or an additional $7.2 million a year.

The proposal would also spend roughly $50 million, or more than 12 percent of the estimated $400 million raised over the decade, on three grade-separated, or continuous-flow, intersections, which allow traffic on one street to travel unimpeded beneath another. The ballot proposition will carve an exemption into the city charter's Neighborhood Protection Amendment to allow the intersections to be built without seeking voter approval after the design phase, city officials said.

The most money, 45 percent of the new tax or $181 million over the next 10 years, would be spent on congestion management, including the three grade-separated intersections, a widening of the west end of Grant Road and improving most of Houghton Road on the east side.

Another 37 percent, or $148 million, would be spent repairing existing residential and major streets, adding sidewalks and streetlights, enhancing street sweeping and maintaining landscaping and drainageways.

The remainder would be spent on mass transit.

The major congestion projects include:

· Widening Houghton Road from Speedway to Interstate 10 to accommodate continuing growth on the city's booming southeast side, as well as widening Speedway Boulevard from Camino Seco to Houghton and Tanque Verde Road from Catalina Highway to Houghton. Total cost: $86.2 million, with $51.1 million coming from new sales-tax dollars.

· Improvements along Grant Road, including grade-separated (or "continuous flow") intersections at Campbell Avenue and Kolb Road, additional lanes from Oracle Road to Park Avenue, and improving intersections at Alvernon Way and Craycroft Road. Total cost: $73 million, with $63 million coming from new sales-tax dollars.

· A grade-separated intersection allowing Kino Boulevard to cross over 22nd Street. Total cost: $10 million.

· Widening projects along stretches of Broadway between Euclid and Country Club, Valencia between I-19 and Mission Road, Drexel Road between Tucson Boulevard and Alvernon Way, and 22nd Street between I-10 and Park Avenue. The city would also build a bridge to allow Alvernon Way to connect with River Road. Total cost: $83.8 million, with $51.6 million coming from new sales-tax dollars.

The city hopes to make up the shortfall in most cases with $77 million from the county's 1997 bond program.

Another $5 million would be spent on technological enhancements, including a pilot program to catch traffic offenders with photo technology.

Although a breakdown of exact costs and spending schedules wasn't available from the transportation department, the citizen committee studying transportation options recommended placing a priority on spending money on repairing residential streets.

The citizen committee had recommended that mass transit be limited to 12 percent of the new tax revenues, but the council went along with a staff recommendation that increased the transit allotment to 18 percent, trimming the amount spent on deferred maintenance by 6 percent. Transportation staffers hope to get additional federal funds to allow more repair work on existing streets.

Transit boosters were happy with the council's decision to increase transit spending to 18 percent of the package, but say it won't do much to improve mass transit.

"I'm disappointed," said Steve Farley of Tucsonans for Sensible Transportation, a recently formed grassroots group advocating for light rail and a better bus system.

Farley is skeptical that the pricey continuous-flow intersections will do much to improve Tucson's traffic congestion. He says traffic will continue to back up at intersections around the GSIs.

"Grant and First Avenue is going to be hell," he says. "It'll just get people to the clog faster. It's possible if they had three in a row somewhere, then maybe they'd be effective."

NONE OF THE council members showed much curiosity about the continuous-flow intersections. The topic never even came up as the council debated the recommendations.

Transportation planners have long tried to sell the intersections, which allow one street to pass under another. But voters have shot down the plans, from a bantam intersection at Broadway and Alvernon in the late 1970s to a grade-separated intersection at Campbell and Grant in 1990.

To further complicate the push for GSIs, former state lawmaker John Kromko led a successful ballot drive in the '80s to pass the Neighborhood Protection Amendment, which requires the city to get voter approval for continuous-flow intersections.

The continuous-flow intersection at Grant and Campbell, which has been on the drawing board for more than a decade, is included in the sales-tax package. Grant Road would dip under Campbell, allowing east-west traffic to avoid the stoplight. A stoplight would remain on Campbell to allow for left turns, but traffic would get more "green time," which planners say would ease congestion.

Deputy City Attorney Brad Detrick didn't reveal details, but said the proposition would include language allowing the projects to proceed if voters approve the sales tax. A city transportation staffer was more direct, saying the sales-tax proposal, being a charter amendment, would simply exempt the intersections from the Neighborhood Protection Amendment.

Both Mayor Bob Walkup and newly elected Republican Kathleen Dunbar said they supported exempting the design of the projects from voter approval. Walkup said it seemed "illogical" to ask voters to approve a portion of the plan after they'd put their stamp of approval on the overall proposition.

Dunbar, who had been sworn into office earlier in the day, was enthusiastic about grade-separated intersections. "We need those intersections," she said.

Two other council members, Republican Fred Ronstadt and Democrat Shirley Scott, said they hadn't considered the Neighborhood Protection Amendment. Scott said such policy matters were under the purview of the city's attorneys.

Democrat Carol West said she'd meant to ask about the implications of the Neighborhood Protection Amendment, but had forgotten to do so. She said she'd have no trouble with an exemption, adding that voters didn't want to micromanage the transportation projects.

Councilman Steve Leal, the biggest transit booster on the council, missed the meeting because of a sprained ankle, but later said he could support the exemption, "depending on how it was written."

Kromko said he wasn't surprised by the city's end run around the Neighborhood Protection Amendment.

"I knew this day would probably come," Kromko said. "You couldn't have a council more hostile to transit and more in favor of cement."

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