The Regional Transportation Authority board last Thursday gently applied the brakes on a proposal to move Southern Arizona down the road to a countywide bus system operated by the RTA.
"Lots of questions need answers before even deciding what direction to go," said Oro Valley Mayor Paul Loomis, a member of the RTA board. He joined the board in the unanimous decision to further study the issue before engaging in negotiations with regional governments.
The board, comprised of the mayors of Marana, Oro Valley, Sahuarita, Tucson and members of the Pima County Board of Supervisors and a representative from the Tohono O'odham Nation, directed RTA Executive Director Gary Hayes not to abandon the plan, but to move cautiously in talks with City of Tucson officials for a takeover of Sun Tran bus operations.
The board also directed Hayes to schedule a special RTA meeting to discuss the topic of public transportation alone.
A particular question board members raised was how to pay for a region-wide transit system. Tucson pays more than $32 million per year for Sun Tran operations.
Hayes presented the board several potential funding options to consider in the event the RTA moves on consolidated bus services. Each government in the county currently has its own transit system.
An option presented includes implementing regional transit fees applied to new development. Under that option, residential construction would be subject to a $1,000 fee for each new home, similar to an impact fee.
Another proposal was to increase county property taxes by 14 cents per $100 assessed value. The money would be earmarked for transit operations. The current county rate stands at $3.60 per $100 assessed value.
Instituting a .02 of 1 cent-per-gallon gas tax was another possibility.
A flat sales tax on gas also could be used to pay the costs. The proposal called for charging .5 percent per gallon.
The last option discussed was to raise bus fares to $2.40 per trip for adults. The current fare rate is $1.50.
The proposal, however, left board members apprehensive about an RTA-administered bus system.
Pima County Supervisor Ramon Valadez described his reaction as "optimistic but pessimistic" because of the appearance of cost shifting.
"If we are interested in taking this over so that other entities don't have the expenses, then I'm not interested," Valadez said.
The RTA arguably is the most financially secure government in Southern Arizona, with tax dollars freely flowing in and more than $100 million in the bank, according to agency reports.
The 2006 voter-approved $2 billion RTA plan sets aside more than $530 million for transit-related projects. The taxing authority included in the plan expires in 2026.
Despite the RTA's apparent solvency, Hayes noted that none of the proposals for regional public transportation would use sales tax money from the voter-approved 2006 plan.
The state legislature in 2004 passed a bill that allows local governments to band together to form regional transportation boards. Two years later, Pima County voters approved a comprehensive transportation plan, including taxing authority, for the RTA board to administer.
"We're not violating the voters' directive," Hayes said.
The RTA likely would run a regional transit system using contractors and vendor companies, similar to how Sun Tran operates now. Hayes said such an operation would not involve the RTA hiring armies of new government workers.
"If we take it over, our primary responsibility is a contract manager," Hayes said.
Still, the discussion about administering a regionwide system raised questions.
"I'm very concerned that we're not able to do this," Loomis said. "As soon as we take this over, we're not going to be able to give it back."
What might happen to smaller transit systems in outlying municipalities like Oro Valley also has left some questions open. The town operates Coyote Run, a door-to-door transit system for the elderly and disabled. About 65 people ride Coyote Run daily, with 1,300 registered users.
At an Oro Valley Town Council meeting earlier this month, town transit administrator Aimee Ramsey presented future options for Coyote Run.
One involved a handover of the system to the RTA, which would initially provide considerable savings to the town.
Ramsey said the option would require the town to pay about $100,000 annually to the RTA for Coyote Run operations.
The total budget for Coyote Run is $1.2 million in the current fiscal year. The majority of that money comes from state and federal grants. About $300,000 comes from the town's general fund.
Other regional governments have already begun the process of divesting from public transportation and ceding operations to the RTA. The Pima County Board of Supervisors last week resolved to hand over five county-owned buses and the entitlement to federal rural public transportation grants.
The handover gives the RTA more than $250,000 in federal grants. The county also bought the buses with federal grants.
What, if any, other local governments would be required to pay the RTA for maintenance of effort of a completely regional transit system is unknown.1