The public has had almost a month to comment on the Regional Transportation Plan, a plan officials are saying will improve transportation flow and ease congestion countywide. Public meetings have been held, e-mail messages have been received, and comment cards have been filled out, but what are they saying? The EXPLORER will present a series of articles, during the next three weeks, that break down the proposed transportation improvement plan, which will appear on the May ballot. If the plan is approved, Pima County residents will see a half-cent increase in sales tax to pay for the projected $1.9 billion funding shortfall in transportation and transit improvements over the next 20 years.
August 10, 2005 - Tables are filled with cookies, wedges of lemon are set next to cups of iced tea, chairs are organized in neat rows ready to be filled. It is all part of a monthlong public outreach program organized by the Regional Transportation Authority to solicit public feedback on its plan for a massive overhaul of the region's road network.
So far, seven public meetings have been held around the county in places including Green Valley, the Foothills, Midtown and Sahuarita.
The meetings are a way for the RTA draft plan to be presented to the public and for the public to comment on the plan that ultimately will be voted on in May.
So far, about 400 comments have been made through comment cards and e-mail messages. The number may not be as high as supporters had hoped, with meetings continuing only until the end of the month. Additional meetings have been added to reach more residents.
Each meeting is the same, featuring a podium where Rick Myers, chairman of the 35-member Citizens Advisory Committee that drafted the plan, stands and speaks about the importance of the plan. An RTA board member often gets up and chimes in on the need to voice comments on the drafted plan, and then there's a break in the program.
Neatly printed signs rest on easels around the room, each manned by an official who can answer citizens' questions. The meetings are organized so comments can be made and specific areas of concern can be addressed, Myers said.
Whether it is questions about mass transit improvements, about why there is no light rail or about environmental issues, there is more than likely an easel and poster board addressing the topic.
At the first meeting, held in Midtown at the Randolph Club House, 600 S. Alvernon Way, about 250 people attended. Sahuarita and Marana meetings followed, with dismal attendance. It's not what was hoped for, Myers said.
Myers said he hopes the number continues to increase as the remainder of the meetings are held in Oro Valley, South Tucson and Vail.
Residents have not specifically rallied against any part of the drafted plan, which includes about 28 roadway improvement projects along with mass transit improvements. The main question being asked at the meetings is, "Why no crosstown freeway?"
"Tucson doesn't have a crosstown freeway, and it won't with this plan," Myers is quick to respond.
The cost of a crosstown freeway is estimated at about $100 million a mile and it would only help a certain number of people, Myers said.
If the RTA chose to construct a crosstown freeway, no other projects would be addressed, and that would leave the roadways in serious trouble, he said.
He did add that improving the recommended roadways would make it easier to build a crosstown freeway in the future if one were desired. But right now the timing and finances are not adequate for such a project, he said.
Pima Association of Governments was given the green light in 2003 by Gov. Janet Napolitano when she signed legislation allowing PAG to function as an RTA and devise a transportation improvement plan for the county.
Pima County will be $4 billion short in meeting the transportation needs over the next 20 years, according to the RTA. If approved, the half-cent sales tax increase would raise about $1.9 billion to make up for the shortfall.
It took about six months and 1,500 hours of meetings to come up with a comprehensive plan
that could be taken to the voters, Myers said.
To present the plan to the public for comment, a way of categorizing the improvement projects was needed. Ultimately, it came down to clarity, and it was decided that the projects would be broken down into corridors: north-south and east-west.
Myers said the breakdown is a way to ultimately "improve the grid" around town and make driving, traveling and living in the county easier.
Understanding that all of the participating entities comprising the RTA had a wish list of improvement projects, the board chose to focus on main arterial roadways, roads that are the most used and would benefit the county if improved, Myers said.
One heavily congested roadway is Silverbell Road, with an estimated 7,000 to 19,000 vehicles traveling on it daily, according to information provided by the RTA.
According to the plan, Silverbell would be widened to a four-lane desert parkway from Ina Road to Grant Road and new bike lanes would be added, as well as a raised and landscaped median with a new curb and sidewalk.
Through widening of the road, congestion would be eased in problem areas between El Camino del Cerro and Grant Road, according to the RTA.
A new three-lane Sunset Road from Silverbell Road to River Road would also be constructed, with a center turning lane, bike lanes in each direction and a new bridge across the Santa Cruz River.
Intersection improvements would also be made at Grant Road, Sweetwater Drive, El Camino del Cerro, Sunset Road, Orange Grove Road and Ina Road.
A member of the RTA board and Marana Mayor Ed Honea said he is very pleased with the plan, especially the amount of improvements his town would be getting if it is approved as it appears.
"There are benefits in there for each and every entity," he said.
Currently, Marana already has a voter-approved half-cent sales tax. If the RTA plan were approved, the sales tax would be replaced with the RTA's implemented tax, he said.
"It's advantageous to us," he said.
Quinn Simpson made her voice heard at the Marana public meeting. A resident in the Silverbell area, she is concerned about construction on the roadway that would disturb a biologically diverse area.
Simpson said there are three options when dealing with Silverbell Road. One: Leave it alone and, according to Simpson, "no one thinks that's a good idea." Two: Put turn lanes and lights into the roadway instead of increasing the number of lanes of traffic. Three: Make the parkway using the Rillito River bed and the Santa Cruz River bed for trees and designate them as environmentally sensitive corridors.
Simpson, who is a strong advocate of mass transit use in the county, said that no matter what is done road improvements are never going to be enough and people are always going to have to deal with traffic congestion.
"No matter how we develop, we'll never catch up with the need," she said.
Honea agrees that there is a need for improvements and that by making the recommended changes to the roadways many areas of the county will benefit.
For example, improving Tangerine Road would help Pima County, Oro Valley and Marana, Honea said, adding that it would also help others who travel outside jurisdictional lines. "It will help us moving traffic."
Honea said he thinks not completing the proposed improvements would be detrimental, and voters need to be aware of the severity of roadway's congestion.
"If we don't do something … in 10 to 15 years we'll have complete gridlock," Honea said.
More than 13.7 million hours are lost on regional roads each year due to congestion. That number is three times higher than 10 years ago, according to information provided by the RTA.
The population of Pima County continues to grow. In 1975, there were 449,554 residents. In 2002, that number rose to 843,746, according to the RTA. Over the next 20 years, the RTA projects the population will grow by 54 percent, which leaves Honea singing the same tune as other RTA officials.
"We've just got to do improvements," he said.
Another area included in the RTA proposed plan that would benefit Marana would be improvements to La Cholla Boulevard. If they were approved, La Cholla would be widened to become a four-lane desert parkway between Tangerine Road and Magee Road, with a four-lane bridge over the Canada del Oro Wash, north of Magee Road.
The widening of La Cholla would provide a "parkway-type alternative north-south route on Oracle Road," according to the RTA, and the new bridge would decrease roadway closures during significant rainfall that frequently closes that section of the CDO wash.
In addition, La Cholla would be widened to six lanes between River Road and Ruthrauff Road, with a new six-lane bridge over the Rillito River south of River Road.
A new railway overpass at Ruthrauff and Interstate 10 is also in the plan. It will enhance interstate access, according to the RTA.
A major headache for motorists traveling through the Northwest is the constant delay at the railway crossings. If approved, the RTA plan would help eliminate the wait times by providing overpasses over the tracks.
At the Marana public meeting, Myers told the gathered residents that he understands the need for railway improvements.
"A lot of people that live on this side of the railroad would like that," he said about the overpass portion of the plan.
Another major north-south corridor improvement in the proposed plan is the widening of La Cañada Drive to a four-lane arterial roadway between Calle Concordia Road and River Road. The roadway would have multiuse lanes in each direction, an equestrian trail and a raised and landscaped median.
In addition to the widening of La Cañada, new turning lanes and traffic signals would be added at Orange Grove, Ina, Magee and Hardy roads.
According to the RTA, widening of the roadway would improve capacity from Calle Concordia to River Road and relieve the major problem areas by connecting to improvements made by the town of Oro Valley to the north and the four-lane Flowing Wells Road in the city of Tucson to the south. Additional connection routes would also benefit the Rancho Vistoso area.
About 20,000 vehicles travel on La Cañada Drive daily, and the road is the site of many school crossings. If the road were widened, the RTA said safety would increase.
Amphitheater Public Schools Superintendent Vicki Balentine said school officials have attended a few of the RTA meetings but she has not been officially reached for comment on the school crossings and on how the widening of La Cañada Drive and the construction would affect the school crossings. Mesa Verde Elementary, LuLu Walker Elementary School, Canyon Del Oro High School, Cross Middle School, Harelson Elementary School and La Cima Middle School all have school crossings on La Cañada.
"Simplistically speaking, we are always interested in having efficient roadways that support the people that live in the district," Balentine said.
She expects further communication if and when the plan is passed, as it would relate to the school crossings in the district, she said.
RTA board member and Oro Valley Mayor Paul Loomis said many things will be happening in the next phase of the plan but admitted this is only Step 1 of a multidimensional plan.
After the first round of public comment meetings are over, the plan will be taken into review again and revised according to residents' comments and suggestions, he said. Then it will be brought back out to residents for comment again before it is written up in time for the May election.
Even though Loomis admits there is a lot of work ahead before the plan can be approved, he said it needs to be done.
"This process we are going through is extremely important," Loomis said. "All the stars are gathered in the right places. The timing is the right time for this to happen."
Officials are hesitant to sell the draft. They say that after the plan is final and citizens have had their say then it will be time to address members of the public and ask for their vote, Myers said. But now is not the time. RTA officials are just trying to get the word out.
"This isn't politically driven," Myers said. "This isn't emotionally driven."
He added that the improvements are a way of "building something for where you go everyday."
Retired U.S. Army Gen. John Wickham, a Sun City Vistoso resident and a citizens advisory committee member, said there are problems with the roads in the county and the issues need to be fixed before it is too late.
"If we don't fix the problem now, we're going to be bedeviled with difficulties in the future," he said. "It isn't going to get any cheaper."
The half-cent sales tax does not apply to groceries and medicines, but it does apply to all other sales of taxable materials bought within the county. The RTA often refers to that as a selling point, since the area is a destination town and visitors will be paying for roadway improvements.
Wickham said the average resident will pay about $32 extra a year.
"Are we better off to spend the $32 to fix the horrible problem we have now, or do we just want to suffer along and get angrier and angrier?" Wickham said.
Another busy roadway on the planned improvement list is First Avenue, which would be widened to a six-lane arterial between Grant Road and River Road. First Avenue would also be widened to four lanes from Orange Grove to Ina.
The RTA estimates about 36,000 to 39,000 vehicles travel First Avenue daily and widening the roadway would provide an alternative north-south route to Oracle, which sees more than 60,000 vehicles daily.
SunTran, Tucson's public bus service, would increase its hours of service on the road by 48 percent, providing later service hours.
Transit improvements are a large feature in the RTA plan, something that is required by the government to be included in the plan.
Oracle Road, from Tangerine Road to Grant Road, will see increased bus pullouts and increased hours, as will Swan Road, from Sunrise Drive to Golf Links Road, and Craycroft Road, from Sunrise Drive to Golf Links Road.
New bus shelters will be constructed, new low-floor buses will be bought, and express bus services will expand in these areas.
Tom Bush, a citizens advisory committee member, said improving transit hours and locations is vital to residents of Pima County.
Bush, retired director of Online Services for the Muscular Dystrophy Assoc-iation, has been affected by spinal muscular atrophy since childhood and depends on a motorized wheelchair to get around. He understands the need of residents to be able to get from one location to another efficiently.
Bush said the extra bus pullouts will increase safety and the low-level buses will make getting on and off the buses easier and quicker for riders and motorists.
"It's a step forward," he said. "If somebody doesn't recognize the importance of this, they haven't been living in Tucson very long."
Next week, the EXPLORER will take a look at the east-west corridors of the proposed RTA plan.