It’s all about roads in Pima County-but what will be done?
By Amber Smith, Special to Inside Tucson Business
The one issue that seems to be uniting our community is roads. Businesses of any and all sizes are actively complaining about their condition and the impact the continuing deterioration has on their ability to do business.
In general, poorly maintained roads add to vehicle operating costs. In 2010, a national report stated that Tucson area drivers pay $288 more per year to operate their cars than Phoenix drivers because our roads have a lesser state of repair. Once you factor in the lack of maintenance since 2010, in combination with inflation, today’s number is far greater.
Recently Sun Corridor hosted a group of site selectors whose job is to guide decisions on identifying the best place for companies to locate/relocate. Unprompted, the members pointed out our roads as an important issue to address. While one site selector commented that Tucson is a best-kept secret, our old roads became the focus.
So, how are we fixing them? In 2015 Pima County voters did not approve the $815 million bond package that included $160 million in road repair and pavement preservation. Some argued that the entire bond package should have only focused on roads to get voter support. Since then, City of Tucson voters supported a half-cent sales tax that will generate $100 million in road repair following their 2012 Proposition 419 that generated $100 million in repairs as well. The City has over 1,200 miles of roads in poor to failing condition, which is nearly equal to that of unincorporated Pima County. The $200 million the City raised through the new revenue stream is chipping away at the need, but it won’t get the job done. The surrounding jurisdictions are younger communities so the extent of need isn’t as great, but they are certainly not immune.
Historically, roadway maintenance is funded through motor fuel taxes collected statewide and then redistributed through the Highway User Revenue Fund (HURF) however, the excise tax collected locally is not fully being redistributed to the local governments as intended. For years attempts have been made to restore HURF funding in its entirety. Very little progress has been made in this effort despite the decade-long fight. Separate discussions have taken place pushing for increased gas tax but there is no political appetite for that statewide effort, furthermore, as vehicles become more fuel efficient, fuel tax revenues that fund would continue to decline.
So now what? What are our options? Option No. 1, general fund revenue. This option assumes that our local jurisdictions have hundreds of millions of dollars in excess spending that could be diverted towards roadway maintenance. Post-recession, this is an impractical thought. The recession forced jurisdictions to run leaner and they are operating with far less employees and programs have drastically been cut. Is it possible to find some money- absolutely. Supervisor Ally Miller has presented her perspective of Pima County government waste and abuse. In drilling down on her list, she identified dedicated funds that cannot be shifted into roadway maintenance, funds that receive matching funds from our state or federal government, or monies spent that were one-time costs that could not be used in the future. When you back out those funds that legally and practically can’t be diverted, you certainly do not come close to finding $400 million in the funds necessary to fix unincorporated Pima County roads.
Option No. 2, sales tax. Pima County is the only county in Arizona to not have a sales tax. The only way the County can pass a sales tax is with a unanimous vote by the Board of Supervisors. We are in the midst of this attempt. To their credit, both Supervisor Steve Christy and Supervisor Ramon Valadez created proposals in which they independently presented a sales-tax concept dedicated to roadway maintenance. Supervisor Valadez’s plan gained some traction as his proposal included a reduction in property tax while providing transparency in how funds would be managed and spent for roadway maintenance. The Chamber supported this concept specifically due to the reduction in property tax and level of oversight. This proposal seemingly addressed taxpayer concerns in which a tax increase was offset by a tax decrease all while dedicating funding to roadway repair. Unfortunately, the Board could not reach unanimous consensus on this proposal in spite of soapbox speeches over the years by different supervisors proclaiming roads as their number one priority, and arguing that property taxes are too high. Neither Supervisor Christy nor Supervisor Miller support this plan, along with Chair Elias who consistently rails against sales tax. The discussion has now turned to a June 19 vote where Supervisors will vote on the same sales tax dedicated to roads, but it also includes a condition in which millions of dollars of general funds would be dedicated to programs and services for the poor to offset the impact the sales tax would have on lower income families. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to know that the current proposal will not receive the required unanimous vote for approval. So, this valiant effort is considered dead on arrival.
Option No. 3, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA). The RTA cannot levy a tax for roadway maintenance in its current form due to statutory limitations that require state legislative change. The RTA has had the highest level of transparency in how it has collected revenue from its levied half-cent sales tax, and how the money is then spent on new transportation projects. This past legislative session an effort was fought to grant a majority vote by the Board of Supervisors to refer to the ballot, an RTA created maintenance plan. To be clear, this effort would allow taxpayers to decide at the ballot if they are willing to pay for region wide maintenance through the sales tax. Even this effort wasn’t advocated for by Supervisor Miller who required a unanimous vote to refer the item to the ballot. A unanimous vote to refer an item to the ballot by a Board of Supervisors is not required anywhere else in state statute. Ultimately this effort failed alongside the other efforts.
So here we are. We have $800 million in growing infrastructure needs with no funding mechanism in either the short or long-term. The Board cannot get a unanimous vote to even refer a tax to the ballot in which the people can decide. Twice, City of Tucson citizens overwhelmingly said, “yes!” to dedicated roadway maintenance funding and supported Proposition 101 and Proposition 409. At what point will all of Pima County citizens and business owners be given the same courtesy to control their own roadway repair destiny?
Roads, roads, roads. Everyone is complaining about the roads and there is certainly a lot of rhetoric out there with reasons why we can’t repair our roads. We need a solution now. Not having a solution is costing $40 million annually in higher maintenance costs as poor roads turn into failing roads which have a much higher cost to repair. Site selectors are showing up now to assess our community to bring in companies that in turn, invest millions of dollars in infrastructure and other assets which grows our tax base for the benefit of all. Citizens must be empowered to control this issue as our elected officials have found every excuse to do nothing. Doing nothing gets us nothing and costs taxpayers millions in accelerated road repair costs compounded with a potential loss of jobs and loss of companies entering our market. Contact your Board of Supervisor and demand consensus and action. If elected leaders aren’t going to lead on this issue, then it must come from you.