Tucson Council plays turf game with RTA

When it comes to negotiations between Tucson City Council and other area jurisdictions over a 20-year extension of the Regional Transportation Authority, the question has been: Does Tucson want to get to yes?

The answer increasingly seems to be a big, fat “no.” Councilmembers just don’t want to be tagged as rogue operators.

New (and former) City Councilmember Karin Uhlich summed up the state of play Tuesday during a study session.

“It sounds like we’re a ‘no’ vote right now,” she said.

Increasingly, it seems like the Council has been a “no” vote the whole flipping time.

For most of my first decade working in and around city government,
the Tucson City Council was a mess. Its process sucked. The councilmembers hated
each other and trying to get a consistent answer out of the city was
like asking a grouper to recite the alphabet.

However, the Council has worked during the past few years. This group of electeds has been impressive with how their kept priorities in the spotlight and moved them along.

On the RTA, I think they got it back-asswards.

The Council has for three years treated RTA Next the same way four-year-old Blake treated spinach on his plate. Sneer at it. Poke it with a fork. Move it around the plate. Hope it goes away.

Every time I assumed smarter heads would win out, the mouths went back to sneering.

Councilmembers were scheduled this week to discuss a compromise plan cooked up by Pima County and the town of Sahuarita to win the city’s affections. The proposal was to increase Tucson’s take of the RTA from 46 percent to 55 percent-ish. There would be a contingency fund under the plan, which means everybody’s share of the pie is a bit crumbly around the edges, because exactly where and when that would be spent isn’t fully baked.

The compromise was a good-faith effort by county and town officials.

Councilmember Kevin Dahl referred to that olive branch as “a crazy
idea from the town of Sahuarita.” I’ll color Dahl unimpressed. 

No one else pushed back. So no, the Council doesn’t want to play. They just doesn’t want to get tagged as rogue actors who didn’t try. They aren’t trying. They are trying to look like they are trying.

What we haven’t seen from the Council is a pedal-down effort to get a deal done to set the parameters of a Tucson-included RTA. I said they should do that years ago.


The Council’s preference would seem to be a go-it-alone approach. The city can pass its own half-cent sales tax to deal with its own transportation issues. Councilmembers even approved putting some sort of sales tax up for a summer vote and then did nothing to make it happen until the deadline for the July election passed.

So the city will have to push their own sales tax measure to this November or March 2025, the next dates possible for an election, if the Council chooses that route.

Uhlich did get City Manager Mike Ortega, himself a skeptic of the regional effort, to lay out a possible timetable for renewing the RTA.

hope for RTA Next is now is to go for a May 2025 election. Working backward, that
means the final regional plan should be completed by the end of 2024 to run an effective campaign to get voter approval. The idea has always been to come up with a draft and
get public feedback, which could easily take 60 days to 90 days to put together. Throw on another 30 days to sort and prioritize the public’s
concerns and it’s probably 120 days.

If there’s no regional deal by Labor Day, the RTA’s May 2025 idea is dead.

Of course, if the city doesn’t put together a solid ballot measure to put to Tucson voters in a timely manner, that gambit would be a dead issue, too.

should point out here that the original RTA’s tax doesn’t run out
until 2026. The current original RTA was established by a vote in May
2006, but sales taxes were still collected that year.

So, technically, the vote could be held in 2026 without missing a beat.

But the members of Tucson’s Council are just more eager to find the way to a no than a yes on moving forward with the RTA. The complaints began at the start of the process, almost three years ago.

Complaints filed here

One of those complaints is still operative today.

The city wants to start buying right-of-way for the rest of the Grant Road expansion, which was part of the 2006 plan.

Well, the city front-loaded transit for the early part of the current RTA’s program, so many other Tucson road projects got pushed to the end of the to-do list.

Then the global economy collapsed and sales tax revenues did not recover in Pima County for about a decade. The RTA didn’t generate as much as expected.

Work on Grant must wait until the money arrives to pay for the whole project, said Farhad Moghini, the RTA’s executive director. It hasn’t. It might be someday. It’s not in-hand now. Re-upping the RTA would be one way to get it.

Oh and then there’s Moghimi himself. Tucson councilmembers have had it in for him for a while. I’ve been willing to entertain the idea that he may be an obstacle. However, his side of the story seems to check out more than the Council’s. It’s not him.

Moghimi represents the majority of his board, not just Tucson’s Council.

Listen to the money talk

The Council wants to go it alone because of money.

The issue has always been that the city generates 65 percent of sales tax revenues and would not get all of that money back. By the city’s own estimates, it can raise $1.6 billion on its own over 20 years. So why would it be okay with getting just $1 billion back for roads?

That’s the price of a regional approach.

The RTA funds transit express routes from the hinterlands into Tucson’s urban destinations. What happens there without an RTA? I thought the idea was to get people out of their cars to help reduce carbon emissions.

A dollar-in, dollar-out proposal would leave a city like South Tucson completely hosed. The RTA team has drafted a plan to spend $56 million improving 36th Street and building a bridge over the Union Pacific railway line. South Tucson’s whole budget runs $7 million a year.

I thought it was important to serve forgotten populations.

I mean, hey, county residents would love to get all their sales and income
taxes returned, but the state formula for divvying up those shared
revenues devalues county governments serving unincorporated populations. Cities and towns get the love, such as it is.

Who serves whom?

I’m now going to throw some obvious stuff at you.

Building a system-wide transportation network requires system-wide planning and, yes, financing. Tucson’s never going to have a freeway, so the broader community needs to make the most of regional corridors that pass through multiple jurisdictions. Think: South Alvernon to North Alvernon, to River Road up to North Thornydale Road.

The area needs more of those.

Marana’s population has more than doubled since the original RTA plan
was originally launched.  More than 58,000 folks now live there. That puts
stress on roads. They need to be widened and often rebuilt as a whole
new type. Governments can’t just widen a lane into a thoroughfare. The
road needs to be redesigned to be safe and efficient. Infrastructure (electrical and gas lines and such) needs to be moved.

How might Marana’s growth effect traffic at West Speedway and North Silverbell Road?

Being the big kid on the block allows Tucson to lead with initiative, rather than react to perceived slights over not getting their “fair share.”

The Tucson Council’s thinking also reflects the silly turf wars the community witnesses time and again when Tucson and Pima County try to stick it to each other.

The majority of county voters are Tucson residents. So the county is sticking it mostly to itself. All city residents are county voters, so the Council is sticking it to 100 percent of their constituents.

All of the Tucson area’s transportation network should work together. A butterfly flaps its wings in Sahuarita and someone sits through an extra four light cycles along East Tanque Verde, burning CO2 the whole time.

Local leaders can get all tied up over which building they work in, and forget which people they serve.

They might represent their voters. They serve the public.