RTA, state agree on wildlife crossings - The Explorer: News

RTA, state agree on wildlife crossings

Parties resolve dispute over payment methods

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Posted: Wednesday, March 9, 2011 6:00 am

A dispute over which government should pay for a series of wildlife crossings along Oracle Road has been resolved.

The Regional Transportation Authority of Pima County and the Arizona Department of Transportation have reached an agreement over three planned crossings near Oro Valley.

Under the terms of the deal, the RTA agrees to incrementally deposit money into an account to total $8.2 million. The money would go toward design and construction of the structures, envisioned as one bridge and two tunnels crossing Oracle Road.

The project has always been an RTA-funded initiative, planned to coincide with an ADOT widening project for Oracle Road.

The dispute over who would pay the initial costs of the crossings arose last summer.

Because the widening project covers Oracle Road, also known as State Route 77, ADOT had to grant permission to build the structures.

That was relatively easy because the state had no plans to pay for the crossing structures. RTA officials, however, had different ideas.

The agency wanted the state to pay the upfront costs of the structures and then be reimbursed by the RTA fund.

The RTA, which administers a voter-approved roadway and transit improvement plan, normally reimburses local governments for construction costs.

ADOT officials said the project would either have to be paid for in advance or the money placed in an escrow account, which the RTA has now agreed to do.

Carolyn Campbell, executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, was pleased the two parties were able to resolve the dispute. She did not believe the discussion caused any lasting problems with the plan.

“I think it delayed the start of construction a bit,” Campbell said, adding the state has planned to begin the project sometime in 2012 or 2013.

Campbell and the Coalition have largely been the impetus for the wildlife-crossing proposal.

Interest in wildlife crossings for the area grew when the town of Oro Valley announced in 2008 that it planned to annex a 14-square-mile section of Arizona State Land Department property north of the town.

Campbell and the Coalition lobbied the town to include a large section of open space in the annexation area that would remain free from development.

At the same time, the group sought to secure RTA funding for wildlife crossings to facilitate animal migrations between the Santa Catalina and Tortolita mountains.

The RTA plan sets aside funds for animal crossing structures. The Oracle Road plans would be the first such structures the RTA approved.

To date, Oro Valley’s annexation plans have not progressed beyond discussion stages.

The three planned crossings would traverse Oracle Road north of Rancho Vistoso Boulevard.

The two tunnel crossing structures would connect tributaries to Big Wash in Oro Valley with Catalina State Park. The proposed underpasses sit adjacent to Big Wash Overlook Place and Scenic Overlook Place.

The larger bridge structure would cross the highway north of Mountainaire Drive.

The state has built similar wildlife crossings on Highway 93 in the northern part of the state. Bighorn sheep frequent the crossing structure.

Another wildlife bridge was built near Winkelman between Oro Valley and Globe along State Route 77.

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