Hooked On Speed

Tucson's Transportation Woes Are Looming Like A Brick Wall In The Middle Of The Freeway.

By Dave Devine

FOR YEARS, COMMUNITY leaders have said they didn't want to see Tucson become another Phoenix. But look at us. We're 800,000 souls spread out from the Pinal County line to halfway to Benson. Tucson is Sprawl City. Phoenix, Jr. The small signs at the edge of town may proclaim Tucson a bike-friendly town, but in fact we're a car-crazy community.

And our transportation future, according to those involved with the issue, will be far more onerous than our present free-wheeling era. Tucson's ever-increasing dependency on the automobile will create community-wide woes.

"Transportation is linked to quality-of-life issues," says Diahn Swartz, chair of the city's Citizen Transportation Advisory Committee. "We're moving forward blindly relying on pre-existing systems which are not based on livability. The problem is just not in the city but regionally."

Feature City Councilwoman Molly McKasson believes the community has to "stop thinking that we're desperate to move more cars. The desperate thing is to think only of moving cars. Protecting our air quality should guide us. A multi-modal transportation system has to be implemented, but right now we're going in the opposite direction. If our air is rotten, our community will be sick."

"We have a chance to make choices now, but we'll need new funds to implement them," says Freda Johnson, co-chair of the Tucson Regional Transportation Coalition, a group advocating increased user fees--such as gas taxes--to pay for some of our future needs.

Joe Herrick, the organization's other co-chair, puts it more concretely: "If nothing's done, the status quo continues. We'll wait until things are so bad there aren't many choices. Then arm-twisting will happen and we'll throw money at the problem like they did in Phoenix with their freeway construction."

HOW BAD ARE Tucson's traffic and transportation woes?

Curtis Lueck, a planner and engineer working on the issue, believes our "biggest transportation problem is that we don't have a big transportation problem." But, he warns, without more transportation funding in the future, people will be "compelled to make lifestyle changes because of transportation." Changes like spending more time caught in traffic, suffering more accidents, breathing more heavily polluted air and generally spending more to get around.

However, today's problems certainly haven't gotten as bad as the Growth Lobby predicted in 1986, before voters rejected the first sales-tax hike proposed to improve Tucson's transportation. In a City Magazine article then, state Rep. Jack Jewett warned, "If we delay, five years from now...our choices will be reduced to an urban freeway system like Phoenix had to buy last year in desperation."

Opponents argued the sales-tax hike was unfair and complained the roadway plan was seriously flawed. They told the magazine, "Let the people who use the roads pay for them; that's the way they do it in practically every other state." With the overwhelming defeat of that tax proposal, and another attempt in 1990, nothing serious was done about the problem; nor was the alternative--making motorists pay directly--considered.

Since 1986, metropolitan Tucson has grown rapidly, meaning there are more cars traveling longer distances, often over county roads originally built to handle only rural traffic. Major streets are crowded all day, not just during rush hours.

And the cost of constructing streets has climbed as neighborhoods have demanded more landscaping and buffers. The price of real estate needed to widen roads has skyrocketed. The lead time for major road-building projects now stands at a decade or more. And maintenance costs for existing roads have increased as more streets decay thanks to lack of upkeep.

Meanwhile, funding for road construction, as well as other transportation alternatives, has declined. When population growth, inflation and increased building costs are factored in, there are considerably fewer dollars for today's roads than there were eight years ago. And the Arizona Lottery proceeds the City of Tucson funnels into the Sun Tran bus system also have declined--in actual dollars--during that time.

Because of this reduced funding, government strategies for addressing our potential traffic problems had to change. Currently, crews are widening intersections, instead of entire streets. Pursuing new technologies to increase roadway capacity without adding travel lanes has become fashionable. Officials are placing more emphasis on making streets attractive and on mass transportation. Meanwhile, road-building has slowed and Sun Tran funds are being cut.

As this happens, drivers, following a Darwinian process, have been adapting to the growing congestion. Cutting through neighborhoods to avoid intersection congestion is common practice now. More Tucsonans are using cell phones to conduct business right from their cars. And more people working at home and traveling during midday to shop or run errands means the normal peak traffic period has been stretched to several hours.

With ever-more drivers traveling ever-greater distances, Tucson's traffic congestion was bound to get worse. And it has.

"The region has seen a steady creep up the index of congestion," says Jim Altenstadter, director of the Pima Association of Governments' Transportation Planning Division. "There are more miles driven now than the new miles added to the system. There's not a lot of money to add more roadway capacity."

Altenstadter believes we must ask about our desire for a multi-modal system. This question, and its answer, involves how we view the region's future, Tucson's quality of life, and livability issues.

"The problem is us," says John Gallagher, a longtime member of the city's transportation committee. "The automobile fascinates us and gives us total freedom of movement. No discipline is required to drive. Some alternatives, like the bus, require personal discipline to meet their schedule. But our society has personal freedom as a goal. We don't have discipline."

WITH LESS MONEY, a growing and ever-more mobile population sprawled out across the desert and the threat of increasing air pollution and eventual voter revolt if something isn't done, what direction is transportation going in Pima County?

Certainly not away from the automobile. Every day we take 2.2 million car trips; almost 60 percent of the time those cars carry only the driver. While Sun Tran carries more than 62,000 passengers on an average day, this is just a bug on the windshield of local traveling. Bikers, walkers and school bus riders also account for tiny percentages of the 2.55 million trips taken each day in metropolitan Tucson.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors' recent fumbling on the proposed November transportation bond election is not a major factor in Tucson's coming problems. That money would just begin to help correct current problems, without beginning to address future congestion. Besides, those funds were always going to be used for roadways anyway; it's just a question of where.

The Supervisors, however, will have the opportunity to do something substantial about new funding for transportation. They're considering raising the current $1,550 across-the-board impact fee on residential construction to a system that ranges from $3,800 to $7,000 a unit. If they did so, somewhere between $300 million and $560 million more would be available for transportation by the year 2020.

Long-range planning on how to spend current and future transportation funds is underway at the Pima Association of Governments, a group composed of elected representatives from Pima County and its municipalities. PAG staffers, working with a consulting firm under a $985,000 contract, are updating the adopted transportation plan for metro Tucson--the same plan voters failed to fund when they defeated the half-cent sales tax hike in 1990.

The planning process includes a series of public meetings this fall, with the revised plan scheduled for adoption next spring. To comply with federal requirements, local politicians must give up daydreaming and pointless rhetoric and state precisely how they intend to pay for the plan's recommended projects and improvements.

That's a big step--the plan will list $9.2 billion in transportation needs over the next 20-odd years. Only $3.7 billion of those dollars would be generated through existing funding sources.

While the list of proposed transportation projects is being refined, possible methods to close the funding gap are being considered. If they're ever adopted, each of the 10 possible strategies would mean a new tax or hiking an existing fee. The big-ticket items are user fees: an increased gas tax, impact fees on new development, a hike in the sales tax. Together, these three taxes would produce a few billion transportation dollars over the next 20 years. But even if all 10 new taxes were adopted--which is highly unlikely--there would still be a $2.5 billion shortfall in funds to cover the planners' wish list.

What new funding sources, if any, should they pursue? The members of the Tucson Regional Transportation Council would like to see gas tax hike of as much as 10 cents a gallon. Freda Johnson, a member of the group, believes we have a chance to make choices now about how we travel in the future. But, she asks, does the pain of greater congestion and worse air pollution have to get so bad before people are willing to pay more?

Gene Caywood, who has observed and commented on Tucson transportation issues for many years, would like people to open their wallets now. He favors a light-rail line running along Broadway with another up Sixth Avenue and Oracle Road. Unless this type of project happens, he predicts, there will be unavoidable pressure to build a freeway--one he says would follow the route of Grant Road.

Albert Elias, the City of Tucson's transportation planner, says people need to be asked how much money should be invested in transportation and that a public discussion of the issues is required. He also says Tucsonans today are "forced to use cars" because of land-use arrangements.

"If commercial services were linked to residential areas, this could change," says Elias. "We need to integrate land-use and transportation."

Gallagher takes a somewhat different approach. While supporting more funding through gas tax increases, he'd also like to see a property tax imposed on parking spaces, with surface lots paying a premium. He suggests penalizing the automobile by making it more expensive by raising registration fees, with owners of the largest cars paying the most.

Supervisor Sharon Bronson, who represents Pima County on the PAG board, believes that to sustain our present quality of life, we'll have to look at lifestyle changes or be willing to spend more money. "The solution will affect the pocketbook one way or another," she says. "Either through more money or more time spent traveling." She would like to see higher impact fees imposed on residential development to help pay the cost of improvements. "Growth needs to pay for itself. It's only fair." She adds she'll also consider higher user fees.

Tucson Mayor George Miller, another member of the PAG board, ranks user fees and a one-cent sales tax increase as his top transportation funding options. He says impact fees have a negligible effect and are the wrong way to go. He wants to see grade-separated interchanges, and not freeways, become a major part of the congestion solution. At $20 to $35 million apiece, such intersections aren't cheap, Miller admits. But they're "sure a hell of a lot cheaper than freeways," he adds.

Along with many others, Miller believes transportation in Tucson won't get much worse over the next two decades. But, he asks, "Will it get better? Only with higher taxes."

IN THE END, perhaps Tucson's transportation future is already set: More roads to accommodate more drivers covering more miles, a few higher taxes, and worsening air pollution seem certain. Transportation is not the public's major concern right now, and the issue lacks both clear leadership as well as community consensus. So it's business as usual.

While the option of developing an effective urban core and a series of activity centers promoting buses, bicycles, light rail and good, old-fashioned walking haunt the dreams of a few, almost 90 percent of local taxpayers continue to vote with their cars every day. We'll undoubtedly continue to ignore the advice of city transportation planner Elias, who points out, "We can't build our way out of congestion. We must invest in various components of a transportation system."

Tucson is a community built on automobile-driven development. Air quality and increased congestion will just be two more offerings to our god of rapid growth. We've sacrificed the bighorn sheep on Pusch Ridge to turn the Santa Catalina Mountains into a giant community park. While the saguaros look pretty on our new license plates, in reality these unique and irreplaceable plants are rapidly falling victim to our bladed and graded suburban subdivisions.

So what are greater congestion, higher accident rates, and worse air pollution compared to the freedom to drive? A decade or so from now, when visitors complain about being able to cut our pollution-filled air with a knife, at least Tucsonans will be able to smile and say, "Bon Appetit!" as they motor off into a spectacular, if hazy, sunset. TW

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