On May 16, 2006, Pima County voters approved a sales tax, and a $2.1 billion plan, to improve transportation.
In its first three years, Regional Transportation Authority set about harvesting "low hanging fruit," such as 81 intersection safety improvements, 30 pedestrian crossings and other relatively small projects, according to executive director Gary Hayes.
"Now, it's time for heavy lifting," Hayes said in his downtown Tucson office.
Projects are "popping out. There's a lot of stuff going on where dirt is really starting to move."
Ground was broken on the $50 million-plus Twin Peaks Interchange project in Marana on May 11. RTA is providing $32 million of the money needed for a new interchange across Interstate 10.
Construction is slated to begin this summer on the Camino de Manana project, another Marana undertaking linking Dove Mountain and Continental Ranch. "It's going to be amazing" in terms of saving time and improving traveler access, Hayes said.
"Those two projects, you look at the money, you look at the difference those are going to make," Hayes said.
On the mass transit front, Sun Shuttle, with local neighborhood transit circulator buses funded through RTA, began operating May 4 in Marana, Oro Valley, Catalina, Green Valley and Sahuarita (see related story, page 8).
With RTA assistance, express commuter service has begun from Oro Valley into downtown Tucson, and into the Aero Park and major employer Raytheon.
"Ours is a 'walk before you run' kind of exercise," Hayes said. "We are a good 20 years behind."
Components of the RTA plan include roadway, safety, transit, environmental and economic vitality improvements. It includes 35 major roadway projects, requiring nearly $1.17 billion in RTA money, during a 20-year run. Along with Twin Peaks and Camino de Manana, RTA is a participant in planned improvements to Magee / Cortaro Farms from Oracle to Thornydale, Tangerine Road from I-10 to La Cañada, and the controversial La Cañada from Calle Concordia to River, among others in the Northwest.
At the three-year mark, RTA had collected $188 million through the ½ of 1 percent excise tax, and had committed $386 million toward 259 projects approved by the RTA board, which has representatives from all Pima County jurisdictions.
"We are keeping a close eye on the economy, and as more projects come online, we anticipate that we will seek bond funding to ensure that the projects are completed as quickly as possible while we the ½ of 1 percent excise tax, and had committed $386 million toward 259 projects approved by the RTA board, which has representatives from all Pima County jurisdictions.
"We are keeping a close eye on the economy, and as more projects come online, we anticipate that we will seek bond funding to ensure that the projects are completed as quickly as possible while we continue to collect revenue over the life of the plan," Hayes said in a release.
Jim DeGrood, director of transportation services for RTA, explained it takes 2-1/2 years from identification of a major project to the bidding process. "That's a compressed time frame," DeGrood said. "We'd like to be faster, certainly."
"It just takes due diligence," Hayes said.
RTA vows to be "fastidious about complying with the voters' wishes," Hayes said. "The time frame and the money are the challenges," money in particular when there are multiple funding sources for a single project. Twin Peaks, for example, has federal transportation money as well as funds from the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Town of Marana and RTA itself.
"There have been challenges getting that project off the ground," Hayes said, particularly in terms of "making sure money was where it needed to be." Marana had to maneuver finances to put money in place immediately. "It certainly has created challenges for the Town of Marana," Hayes said. But the money is in place, and work has begun.
"We all understand each other better, the jurisdictions and the RTA," Hayes said.
Local governments have committed more than $400 million from impact fees, federal funds and local transportation allocations to help execute the RTA plan. Now, with economic recession, local jurisdictions are cutting staff as budgets decline. RTA has hired several people, who would have lost jobs with local governments, as engineering contractors.
"We're very sensitive to what they have to go through," Hayes said of its partners. "We're constantly looking for ways to share resources with them."
RTA is multi-modal. Among the projects are 550 miles of new bike lanes and paths, 250 miles of new sidewalks, $45 million for wildlife linkages, six new park-and-ride centers including one at Rancho Vistoso, 200 new bus pullouts, and new and improved railroad crossings with 10 over- and under-passes.
One other step was taken in the last year. The Arizona attorney general's office validated the 3-2 outcome of the 2006 election, after an investigation and recount.
"We were confident that a recount would confirm the election results," said Marana Mayor Ed Honea, the current RTA board chairman. "The RTA's reputation was at stake, and we supported the recount to help put all the unnecessary rumors to bed. I hope that the region will come together once again and support the ongoing efforts of the RTA. We are delivering projects as promised."