On the Future of the Regional Transportation Authority for Pima County, I Gotta Say, “See What Tim Stellar Said…”

Tim Stellar wrote the other day about the coming issue of reauthorization of the Regional Transportation Authority for the next 20 years (the current RTA authorization of a 1/2 cent sales tax will expire in 2026). Paring his criticism down to the bone, he concludes that Tucson could get an additional ~$500m in additional project revenue over the next 20 years by just asking Tucson voters to do a 1/2 cent sales tax for Tucson transport outside of the RTA regional framework. We have seen a number of delays in major projects in and priorities of Tucson under the regional RTA structure over the past two decades, so why not pull out and get a much better deal for Tucson residents? I gotta agree.

“City representatives are right to be hesitant about RTA Next, and not just because of the extreme delays in funding projects like the Grant Road improvement. The city should be prepared to bail on the RTA altogether because, among other good reasons, it can likely do better on its own, by asking city voters to approve a citywide half-cent sales tax for transportation when the countywide RTA tax expires in 2026.”

Tim Steller, Tucson.com

I’m strongly in favor of regional planning of our infrastructural needs – our need for transportation and other critical services doesn’t just stop at the borders of Tucson – but if regionalism is going to be used to underserve Tucson’s needs then we need to renegotiate the deal. And indeed, as Tim ably points out, it seems that an institutional hostility toward Tucson’s priorities has taken root in the very structure and leadership of the RTA. As Tucson is the central hub of economic growth and vitality in Southern Arizona, it is time we used our numbers and economic centrality to ensure a fair deal for Tucson taxpayers and not continue to subsidize the rest of the county’s needs unfairly over our own.

One of Tim’s major exhibits in his argument is the Grant Road Project: it was one of the key projects for which Tucson voters approved the RTA in 2006, but construction isn’t even going to be complete on the final phase of that project until AFTER the expiry of the current authorization in 2026. That is a stark illustration of just how low among the priorities of the current RTA Tucson’s needs have been prioritized. That needs to change, and in my experience of how governance works, we won’t be able to change such an institutional bias without fundamentally remaking the institution. At bare minimum Tucson leaders need to renegotiate the structure of the RTA governing body and decision-making and planning processes in order to get on board with any RTA Next plan.

No reauthorization without renegotiation. That should include an ab initio overhaul of the representational structure and decision-making process of the RTA to give Tucson control and priority commensurate with its contribution and importance to the region. Otherwise, it may be better to bring this regional experiment to end after 20 years of failed promises. I suggest readers study Tim’s article in detail, he goes much deeper into justification and analysis than I do here; he’s convinced me that Tucson needs to play hardball – including the option of killing the RTA- to get a fairer deal over the next 20 years.

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