Rex Scott: RTA Next transportation plan inextricably linked to economic development

The Regional Transportation Authority Board has nine members: the mayors of our five cities and towns, the chairs of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and Tohono O’odham Nation, the Southern Arizona representative to the State Transportation Board and me, representing Pima County. We have two essential tasks: to complete the first RTA plan (passed by voters in 2006) and to get an RTA Next plan out for public review and voter approval.

The initial RTA plan, funded by a half-cent sales tax, has been a monumental success. Close to 1,000 projects and services addressing roadways, safety and transit have been delivered in the plan’s first 18 years. No single jurisdiction could have achieved all those results acting alone.

Also true is that there have not been federal or state monies that could have accomplished all that. The same will be true for the 20-year period that an RTA Next plan will cover. The RTA board has heard more than once that the money coming into this region from DC and Phoenix will primarily be for maintenance of the infrastructure that is their responsibility.

The cities and towns in Pima County get most of their revenues from sales taxes. Some say that each jurisdiction could go it alone and fund their own plans. That would leave out over a third of our citizens who live in unincorporated Pima County.

The only way a sales tax can be levied by the county is through a unanimous vote of the Board of Supervisors. This is unlikely. Even if that vote occurred, the people in our cities and towns are county residents and would pay that tax on top of the ones charged by their governments.

We are inextricably linked in terms of where we live, work, shop and play. It makes no sense to fail to continue a regional approach to improving infrastructure that benefits all of us. Doing otherwise is not just nonsensical based on our interconnectedness; it could also hamper our efforts to bring more businesses and jobs into Pima County.

Recently, there was a forum sponsored by Sun Corridor, our regional economic development partner. The forum featured “site selectors” — people who prospect areas where major employers might want to locate. Evidence of robust regional collaboration is a key factor they weigh when advising their clients.

Sun Corridor staff provided a transcript from the forum. What we heard from the site selectors about the vital role that evidence of regionalism plays in economic development was informative and cautionary.

One site selector spoke to how we cannot act as if we are islands and that it is abundantly clear when local governments are not coming together. Another said that “regionalism is key to any success and that “a single city and county cannot be something to everybody.” One said that “seeing when all of the different components in a region come together…it accelerates the timeframe to get projects done.”

It was clear that the site selectors knew about the discussions around our RTA Next plan. One of them noted that there is “no plan right now. ” He said that his clients would be very concerned with a community that “doesn’t have a consensus” and where local governments are not “all rowing in the same direction.” The site selector concluded by reminding us that “roads are something that any client is going to be interested in” and referred to regional agreement on an RTA Next plan as “a critical thing.”

The RTA board has two meetings in May and our goal is to have a draft plan out for public review by the end of the month. 

In the interest of regional collaboration, common sense planning and economic growth, I hope that everyone reading this will contact each RTA board member to encourage us to find consensus on a RTA Next plan. The stakes are too high for us to fail to do so.