Pay Now, Pay Later

Looks Like Pima County's $350 Million In Road Bonds Won't Go That Extra Mile.

By Dave Devine

ONE YEAR AGO, Pima County voters passed a $350 million, six-phase, 58-project road bond proposal. Backers of the plan said the county needed to begin the roadwork immediately, while opponents argued that too many dollars would be eaten up in interest payments rather than asphalt.

As it turns out, however, the work won't be starting right away. County staffers originally planned to sell $60 million worth of bonds to finance 16 first-phase projects. These improvements were to be completed in 1999, and it was assumed a 6.5 percent interest rate would be paid for the money.

The good news is that bonds were sold at a 4.4 percent interest. The bad news is that only $40 million was obtained in June, and most of the early projects won't be completed until 2000 or later. The shortfall resulted after an assessment of "how much work could reasonably be completed in the time period," says Jim Barry, a staffer with the County Administrator's office.

Currents Before last year's election, bond proponents claimed some roadway improvements could be started within six to 12 months of voter approval. One of the first-phase projects has actually been built, and a few others are slated for construction shortly. But most projects have yet to reach the design stage.

The delay is due to several factors, says Ben Goff, manager of Pima County's Transportation Systems Division. The county cranked up a new and unfamiliar project-management system and procurement procedures just as the bond program was approved. Goff added that his division's annual capital program went from $5 million to $25 million, but they only added two new workers to handle the load.

While Pima County staffers will prepare plans for several of the first-phase projects, most will be designed by outside consulting firms, many of whom gave generous donations to the pro-bonds campaign. But contracts for the consultants' services are still not finalized.

While most of the phase-one work is generally on schedule to be completed in 2000, Goff points to two projects which will probably take longer. The $15.5 million widening and realignment of River Road from First Avenue to Campbell may be built under two contracts because additional slope work is required.

The expansion of Thornydale Road from Ina to Cortaro Farms Road, estimated to cost $11 million, is complicated by the need to move a graveyard. Additional sewer work will also be involved. But Goff believes the other projects are on track for completion within two years.

District 4 Supervisor Ray Carroll says the Mount Lemmon shuttle, a first-phase project that he pushed, will be operational next year. The county will spend $1.5 million in bond funds to build roadside pullouts, a parking lot at the bottom of the Catalina Highway and a shuttle station at the top of the mountain.

While details are still sketchy--the shuttle's schedule is still up in the air--Carroll believes the system can be operational in 1999. A real-estate donation valued at $500,000 has been made to help the project along, and Carroll says a third-party operator will run the shuttle.

Insisting he opposes using county funds to subsidize the business, Carroll believes passengers will be attracted to pay prices "like that for a movie ticket" instead of forking over the Forest Service's $5-per-car charge for the drive up to Mount Lemmon.

Price estimates for the 16 phase-one projects before the election were $71.5 million, not all of which would be covered by bond funds. Current tentative projections have the figure at $94.5 million, a 32 percent increase.

The costs have been driven up by better estimates for required land acquisition, increases in utility relocation costs, and additional design information. As the projects get closer to construction, this estimate will continue to change.

Pima County's Goff says they will have to look for supplemental funding to cover the $23 million difference. He's not ready to recommend the county use future bond funds to balance the first-phase shortfall, prefering to tap other regional transportation revenue streams.

Skeptical that the county can provide additional funding, Carroll says the Board of Supervisors will either have to find additional monies at the state and federal levels or re-evaluate bond program priorities.

In the long run, the bond package could be $50 to $60 million short of the funds needed to complete all the promised projects. Improvements listed in the fourth and later phases may be in jeopardy if the decision is made to use future bond proceeds to cover existing shortfalls.

Unlike the City of Tucson, where a committee of citizens oversees bond program implementation, the Board of Supervisors tracks the transportation department's progress--and they haven't been in the loop. Carroll candidly admitted he hasn't "kept track of each specific project."

But next month the Board may receive an update on the entire road bond package. Supervisors could learn that supporters of the road bonds vastly over-promised what could reasonably be delivered in terms of cost and implementation. While that's nothing new in politics, it could mean the county won't be completing all 58 projects with the funds approved by the voters last year. But there's always the next Pima County road bond election. TW

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