Wilson: Getting RTA Next priorities right more important than forcing consensus

Rachel Wilson is a Tucson attorney and a former member of the Citizens Advisory Committee of the Regional Transportation Authority.

By way of introduction, I left the RTA’s Citizens Advisory Committee so I could speak more publicly on how clouded the RTA Board’s vision is for transportation in our region.

In a recent guest opinion championing the RTA Next plan, Pima County Supervisor Rex Scott rightly emphasizes the interconnectedness of regional transportation investments and economic development. While making the case for cooperation, though, he fails to address why consensus on a plan has been so difficult to come by – even if it’s in our region’s interest.

The problem with the current discussions on RTA Next is that the interests of the largest population center, Tucson, are drowned out by smaller communities, even though those smaller communities depend on Tucson’s economic success.

Let’s delve into some of the current major sticking points: public transit and road maintenance.

Suburban and rural community leaders argue that public transit isn’t a priority for their residents and they’re unwilling to fund something they don’t use. 

Meanwhile the city of Tucson’s Move Tucson long-range transportation plan survey found overwhelming support among residents for more investment in a quality transit system.

And it’s not just popular with residents. Transit is also a strong economic driver, with studies showing that every $1 invested in public transit yields $5 in economic returns and every $1 billion invested in public transport supports and creates an estimated 50,000 jobs.

Smaller communities with fewer roads also say that expanding their road networks is a top priority as opposed to maintaining the roads that already exist. 

In contrast, Tucson’s roads need near-constant upkeep due to high usage. Funding for road maintenance has been at the top of the city’s list of priorities for a decade and has been popular with Tucson voters, who’ve passed three sales tax initiatives to support road maintenance. These are roads everyone in the region uses to participate in economic activity, even residents of Oro Valley and Marana.

Supervisor Scott quotes a site selector who says “roads are something that any client is going to be interested in.” We can assume this references the condition of our roads as well as the attractiveness (or lack thereof) of our streetscapes. 

Nevertheless, at the behest of the smaller communities, funding for road maintenance will not be included in RTA Next, at least as the proposal stands now. This is a mistake, as fixing the pavement on our major streets addresses current needs, attracts employers, and delivers economic development and safety benefits to everyone in the region.

Scott highlights the necessity of RTA Next for Pima County, suggesting that without it, achieving unanimous approval from the Board of Supervisors to fund transportation projects is unlikely. 

This underscores why our region shouldn’t overly rely on a single regional funding source like RTA for hyper-local transportation investments. Sacrificing the city’s values and priorities to appease other jurisdictions politically – or to lure out-of-state corporations in the hope that our concessions will somehow pay off in future job creation – is, to use Scott’s word, “nonsensical.” Nonsensical for the city and nonsensical for the smaller communities, too, if they take the time to look at the region as a whole.

It’s possible to have effective regional transportation planning and smaller, targeted regional transportation measures to support vital projects without being tethered to an unwieldy, outdated behemoth for decades. In fact, this approach is common practice in many other regions.

Oro Valley joined Marana in leaving Visit Tucson because Oro Valley’s city manager doesn’t believe the town is getting the best return on its investment. Yet when Mayor Romero makes the same case for a half-million Tucson taxpayers who could forfeit as much as $30 million per year to participate in RTA Next, she is called divisive. 

This hypocrisy on behalf of Oro Valley and Marana shows that they are not truly thinking about our region; they are only thinking about their tiny part of it.

In some ways, the original sin of the RTA was in giving each constituent member one vote on the board.This has allowed the smaller communities to siphon off money from Tucson taxpayers for their own, local road projects, thus encouraging and rewarding under-taxation in Tucson’s suburbs. 

Indeed, the last 20 years of the RTA have blinded the smaller communities to the ways in which a healthy, vibrant Tucson is essential to their own survival. 

The suburbs die without Tucson and Tucson knows what it needs for economic vitality.

If we are going to continue to use the RTA model to fund regional transportation for the next 20 years, it’s more important to get the priorities right than it is to appear to agree for the sake of agreeing. And without an acknowledgement that the smaller communities currently lack regional vision, the RTA will fail to achieve consensus and that will be a good thing.