Dispute over funding could put NW Wildlife crossings in jeopardy - The Explorer: Pima Pinal

Dispute over funding could put NW Wildlife crossings in jeopardy

ADOT, RTA can't agree on payment plan for $8M project

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Posted: Tuesday, September 28, 2010 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:21 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

A bureaucratic disagreement over financing may jeopardize plans to build three wildlife-crossing structures along a stretch of Oracle Road in Oro Valley and Pima County.

The two principal agencies, the Regional Transportation Authority and Arizona Department of Transportation, can't decide who's responsible for putting up the cash for the $8 million project.

"We're a reimbursement organization," said Jim DeGrood, transportation services director for the RTA.

The RTA has every intention of paying for the crossing structures, DeGrood said, after the work ends.

"If we have to put it all up front, that creates a real cash-flow issue for us," DeGrood said.

The authority has about $52 million in bank, with new sales tax funds coming in all the time and reimbursements going out nearly as often.

ADOT wants the RTA to pay the costs associated with the structures and then accept reimbursement from the state.

One of the structures would be a vegetated bridge spanning the roadway to connect wildlife migratory paths between the Santa Catalina and Tortolita mountains. The other two crossings would run beneath Oracle Road in Oro Valley's northern reaches, connecting desert tracts in Catalina State Park with washes on the west side or the highway.

"ADOT requires that funds for non-ADOT project elements be paid for in advance, or the funding be placed into a state escrow account. This has been the agency's long-standing practice and is aligned with other transportation agencies around the nation," ADOT's media office wrote in an e-mail response to The Explorer.

The agency said the requirement has been long-standing and the RTA knew this, particularly after similar funding issues arose during construction of the Twin Peaks Interchange project in Marana.

The impasse has prompted Pima County to step into the fray in an effort to get the project back on track.

"The wildlife overpass is warranted and needs to be installed," wrote Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry in an Aug. 17 memo to ADOT Director John Halikowski and RTA Director Gary Hayes.

"These wildlife crossings were developed as part of the regional planning process with the Arizona State Land Department for the planned development of Arroyo Grande, which was endorsed by the county," Huckelberry continued.

Arroyo Grande was the name given to a 14-square mile expanse of state land north of Oro Valley. The town and state land department have been engaged in negotiations for the annexation of the land for more than two years. Those negotiations included protecting nearly 70 percent of the area from development. The proposed wildlife crossings would help funnel animals into the protected areas.

"I think, and I believe that Oro Valley thinks, that the wildlife crossing is way too important for a bureaucratic squabble to jeopardize it," Huckelberry told The Explorer.

The county administrator added the entire premise of the Arroyo Grande plan hinged on the connectivity the wildlife crossings would provide, calling their construction "fundamentally needed."

Pima County's interest in the proposed crossings goes beyond its endorsement of the annexation plan. In an effort to facilitate the wildlife crossings, the county spent $1 million in bond funding on 13 acres of Oracle Road frontage at the site of the proposed bridge.

"Given our $1 million advance public investment, we expect the crossings, including the wildlife overpass, to be completed," Huckelberry wrote in the August memo.

DeGrood said ADOT representatives originally approached the RTA about the wildlife-crossing project.

"ADOT said we have this project, we would like funding," DeGrood said. "This is a state priority."

Former ADOT worker Siobhan E. Nordhaugen sent the request to the Pima Association of Governments in August 2009. The proposal put an $8.2 million price tag on the three structures. The Pima Association of Governments acts as the fiscal manager for the RTA.

DeGrood said the two agencies have begun negotiating terms of an intergovernmental agreement that could rectify the funding standoff.

"Because this project is not scheduled to advertise for construction until the 2013 fiscal year, there is ample time for RTA to make the necessary financial arrangements and for the crossings to be returned to the project scope," according to ADOT's e-mailed statement.

If the crossing proposal fails to materialize, it would mark the second such ADOT plan to fall by the wayside. In June the agency announced the cancellation of a series of crossing structures in the Pinaleño Mountains in southeastern Arizona. The plan was intended to help the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel population.

ADOT forfeited $1.25 million in federal funding for the project, citing restrictions from using the money for roadway improvement work.

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