Wheel Deal

Got something to say about the proposed regional transportation plan? Get in gear!

Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Gary Hayes has heard a lot of strong and conflicting opinions about the first draft of a road plan that he hopes voters will approve next May.

People have told Hayes they "hate Snyder Road, love Snyder Road. Hate Barraza-Aviation, love Barraza-Aviation. Hate the streetcar, love the streetcar."

Even his dentist had an opinion. During a recent checkup, the dentist told Hayes he was voting against the plan--and its accompanying half-cent sales tax--because it didn't include a freeway.

Hayes was in no position to argue with the man working on his teeth, but he said during an interview last month, in the relative safety of his office, that RTA officials decided against proposing a freeway because it would have cost a fortune--as much as $100 million a mile--and resulted in extraordinary disruption along its path. In addition, it would probably take at least 10 years to build while leaving no money for any other improvements.

Instead, the RTA plan's buzzwords are "regional mobility." The draft proposal, which combines an estimated $1.9 billion from a new sales tax with impact fees and other revenue over the next 20 years, calls for filling in gaps in the existing road system while boosting transit opportunities. "It may look like a series of Band-Aids throughout the system, but we're trying to create flow," says Hayes.

While it includes more buses, greenways, sidewalks, bike paths and pedestrian-safety improvements, it doesn't include maintenance of long-neglected residential streets, which has provoked an angry reaction from some vocal midtown voters. Hayes says the law that created the RTA puts an emphasis on improving the regional road system rather than residential streets, but he understands why "a neighborhood person has a tough time making that leap of faith."

It's certainly tough for Ken O'Day, president of the Campbell-Grant Neighborhood Association. O'Day has a long list of complaints about the plan that range from the procedural to the projects themselves. His beefs: Midtown Tucson wasn't sufficiently represented on the citizen committee that's overseeing the proposal. Too much money is being spent on the edge of town. Widening Grant Road and Broadway Boulevard will be devastating to the city's core. The urban streetcar isn't practical. The regressive sales tax is being doled out unfairly.

O'Day got interested in transportation issues after fighting against the city's 2002 plan, which included an experimental grade-separated intersection that would have allowed Grant Road to tunnel underneath Campbell Avenue. He's emerged as an unofficial spokesman for a group of 101 citizens--including former city councilwoman Molly McKasson, Tucson Citizen arts critic Chuck Graham and, of course, former lawmaker John Kromko--who signed a three-page letter to the RTA outlining concerns about the plan. (The full text of the letter, along with a reply from Rick Myers, chair of the RTA Citizens Advisory Committee, can be found on the Weekly's Web site as part of this feature package.)

Rather than spending money on inner-city road widening, the group asks the RTA to repave streets with rubberized asphalt, improve pedestrian safety with more crosswalks, bury utility lines, improve landscaping and drainage, and install streetlights.

Whether this group represents the seeds of a rebellion that will lead to defeat next May or the buzzing of an angry minority remains to be seen. The aforementioned RTA-commissioned survey of 600 Pima County voters showed that anywhere from 57 percent to 68 percent of the voters leaned toward supporting the projects criticized in the letter--and that about 70 percent of the voters said that neighborhood opposition to various projects would have no affect on how they voted. (The poll had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.)

But a similar poll showed that the city's 2002 transportation plan had high marks in its early stages as well. That proposition was shot down by 68 percent of Tucson voters on Election Day.

Hayes may be new to Tucson--he moved here to take over the newly empowered RTA last year from upstate New York, where he headed up another regional transportation authority--but he's well aware that it's proved impossible to persuade voters to support a sales tax for transportation. Over the last two decades, voters have knocked down similar transportation plans by wide margins four times; two of those defeats have come in the past four years.

As Hayes and his team formally begin the second phase of public outreach this week, the gap between the cost of projects and anticipated funding has grown to more than $300 million, partly because the costs have climbed for roads and transit, and partly because anticipated impact fees have dropped from $300 million to $245 million.

Three of the top hot-button projects remain the widening of Grant (and, to a lesser degree, the widening of Broadway); completing both ends of the Barraza-Aviation Parkway; and the urban streetcar that would carry passengers between University Medical Center and the west end of downtown.

Grant Road

One of the most expensive proposals calls for the widening of Grant Road between Oracle and Swan roads, which is estimated to cost more than $158 million--with a big chunk of that money dedicated to acquiring right of way from homes and businesses. If the five-mile stretch were to get done, Grant would be six lanes from Interstate 10 to Tanque Verde Road and serve as a major east-west corridor.

Jim Glock, director of the Tucson Transportation Department, calls Grant Road "worn out." The street has drainage problems, lousy sidewalk connections and, during rush hour, growing congestion.

"If we're going to go in there and make those investments, isn't it appropriate to at least bring it up to a capacity equal to what you see west of Oracle and east of Swan Road?" Glock asks.

What Grant will look like after its makeover remains an open question. Glock says the department is keeping an open mind about the future design, although the plan for the stretch of Grant between First and Campbell avenues calls for acquiring property on the north side of the street.

One likely scenario calls for the city to buy up property on one side of the street and shift the entire corridor so that businesses and homes on the remaining side would gain additional right of way--which would give them more breathing room between Grant Road and their front doors.

One thing's for certain: A lot of what's there now would have to go. If and when the project is completed, there will be considerably fewer homes and businesses along Grant. That will help relieve congestion by eliminating "curb cuts"--points where drivers enter and exit the street.

Glock says the city plans to help both homeowners and business owners with the costs and logistics of relocation. The city will also work with the businesses that remain to stay afloat despite the sales losses that accompany major road-construction projects.

Portions of the future Grant Road could also include frontage roads and sound walls--picture the city's recent work along Campbell Avenue between Elm Street and Grant, where the city bought out an entire block on the west side of street to widen the corridor.

Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed in the RTA's poll definitely supported the idea of widening Grant. Another 29 percent said they were probably in support of it. Just 12 percent said they were definitely against it, with another 8 percent saying they were probably against it.

The proposal's critics fear that getting rid of local businesses will erode their neighborhoods and create more congestion as they're forced to travel farther to shop. And the work itself will be a protracted disruption in their day-to-day lives, with little benefit afterward.

O'Day, whose neighborhood association borders Grant Road, fears the city's approach amounts to an attitude of "let's knock down neighborhoods and businesses and widen the road. ... It's not all about moving cars. It's about creating a livable community."

While acknowledging that Grant has a congestion problem, O'Day suggests the flow of traffic could be sufficiently improved with bus pull-outs, improved intersections that include right-turn lanes, and better timing of lights.

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, who headed up the RTA's technical management committee, finds that notion hard to swallow. "Yeah, and we can beam people across town, too," he says.

"People have to realize there are no magic tricks out there," Huckelberry adds. "Bus bays and traffic-light timing aren't going to do it. If it would, it'd be done already. There have to be hard decisions about real improvements."

Glock is more diplomatic. "They have a right to be hesitant about this," he says. "Neighborhoods can be quite fragile, and this really does have to be handled in a thoughtful manner as we move forward."

Barraza-Aviation Parkway

A cross-town freeway remains popular among voters, at least in theory; a recent RTA poll showed that when asked what they most wanted in a transportation plan, more than 16 percent said a freeway, making it the second-highest top priority. (It came in behind better mass transit, which was named a top priority by more than 21 percent of those surveyed.)

The poll also showed that 51 percent of voters would definitely support a plan that included freeways, while another 26 would probably vote for a plan that included them.

While the RTA plan doesn't include a freeway, it does include an extension of the Barraza-Aviation Parkway, stretching along the eastern boundary of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base from Alvernon Way and Golf Links Road, where it currently ends, to the intersection of Valencia Road and I-10. The 3.86-mile road is expected to cost nearly $200 million.

Critics, including RTA Citizen Committee member Steve Farley, a mass-transit booster who lost the Ward 6 City Council primary to Nina Trasoff last week, say that the road is too expensive and unnecessary.

O'Day suggests that impact fees should cover more of the cost of projects like Barraza-Aviation. The current plan calls for the RTA to cover about $155 million, while impact fees provide $43 million for the project.

Supporters, including both Huckelberry and Glock, say it's one of the few elements in the proposal that deals with future growth. City planners project that up to a quarter-million people could be living in the southeast valley by 2030. The parkway would give them an alternative to I-10 when entering central Tucson.

Huckelberry estimates that 20 years ago, the population on Tucson's northwest side, including Marana and Oro Valley, was somewhere around 10,000. Today, Marana and Oro Valley have 75,000 residents between them, with tens of thousands more living in unincorporated Pima County.

But the roads in the area are just starting to catch up with the new development.

"We've put people in and worried about infrastructure later," Huckelberry says. "If we don't do the east end of Barraza-Aviation, we're falling into the same short-sightedness trap we fell into on the northwest. By and large, the RTA plan is for existing residents. There's very little for future residents, but it's important that we recognize where future growth is going and do something about it."

In the RTA poll, 31 percent said completing the eastern extension of Barraza-Aviation was very important, while another 36 percent said it was somewhat important. One-third said it was not at all important.

The downtown end of Barraza-Aviation has long been controversial and expensive. Glock says the latest plan has been trimmed back to a four-lane road that travels north of the railroad tracks and feeds into Sixth Street. In addition, Sixth Street will get an underpass that will carry traffic beneath the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.

Glock expects to present the revised plan to downtown neighborhoods next month.

Urban Streetcar

Most of the RTA's $547 million mass-transit package has drawn little criticism--except for the urban streetcar, which would carry passengers between University Medical Center and Rio Nuevo.

The urban streetcar would hit stops about every 10 minutes, taking passengers west on Helen Street from Campbell to Cherry Avenue; south on Cherry to Second Street; west on Second Street to Park or Tyndall avenues; south to University Boulevard; west on University Boulevard to Fourth Avenue; south on Fourth Avenue to Congress Street; west on Congress to the civic plaza planned for Congress and Granada Avenue; through the civic plaza and then under I-10 and across the Santa Cruz River to the planned Rio Mercado area.

An ongoing study, which is expected to be finished by the end of the year, will determine whether the streetcar runs along fixed tracks or is some sort of rubber-tired vehicle.

The streetcar project would cost an estimated $150 million, with up to $75 million coming from the federal government, $66 million from the RTA and the remainder through the fare box.

Farley, naturally, is a big booster of the idea, predicting it will become so popular with riders taking short hops along the route that the voters will support expanding it north on Campbell, with an eventual expansion toward Tucson Mall.

Like the other projects, the streetcar enjoys support in the RTA poll, with 28 percent saying they would definitely support a plan that included it and 29 percent saying they'd probably support it. Only 15 percent said they were definitely against it, while 10 percent said they were probably against it.

But it drew criticism from the group that O'Day has helped organize. In their letter, they argue that the streetcar "is not a cost-effective use of resources. An expensive streetcar that only operates between Rio Nuevo and the University will do little to alleviate the serious congestion and parking problems in the downtown and university area ... ."

O'Day says the streetcar project is "disappointing in the sense that they seem to be doing it more for political reasons than for transportation reasons. They're doing it to satisfy the people who are light-rail supporters. ... It's not really functional."

Have something to say about the transportation plan? Now's your chance to speak up.

Over the next two months, the RTA will continue refining the plan while gathering more feedback from Pima County residents. With the gap between funding and expenses, they'll have to either make cuts or find new revenue sources.

One potential source of more money: higher transportation impact fees, if elected officials can find the political will to jack them up. Huckelberry recommends that each jurisdiction push its fees to $5,000 per home. The county now charges about $3,900; the city of Tucson has a sliding scale of $2 per square foot, with the fee maxing at $6,000.

To put the plan on the May 2006 ballot, the RTA needs to finalize the plan by the end of the year. That includes not only nailing down costs, but also developing a 20-year schedule for the projects.

"It's quite a juggling act," says Hayes, who adds that the RTA committee has already rejected the idea of postponing the vote.

"They said, 'We need to maintain sense of urgency. We can not afford to wait any longer,'" Hayes says.

Huckelberry says it's a good goal, but what's most important is having a plan that voters will finally pass, since the RTA won't get too many more opportunities to ask for their support.

"What's vital is we have a good product to sell to the public," Huckelberry says. "And if we can't do it by May of '06, then we've got to pick another date."

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly