Editor's note: This story first appeared Sunday as an exclusive for our print readers.
Pima County could delay up to $240 million in voter-approved road construction because County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry is withholding $80 million for projects inside Tucson.
The money, a mix of Pima County transportation bond money and new development impact fees, was approved by the Board of Supervisors to be included in the 20-year Regional Transportation Authority road construction plan, which voters approved in 2006. It was slated to go to three major city road projects.
While nixing funding for city projects, Huckelberry said he will still fund all of the RTA projects in the unincorporated portion of the county. "Our priority for highway improvements in the RTA is the unincorporated area. Our priority for spending county highway user revenue fees and impact fees is the unincorporated area," he said.
Although the $2 billion RTA plan calls for money to be spent during specific five-years periods, Huckelberry said he thinks the county will be in compliance with the funding schedule as long as the money is paid sometime before 2026, even though contractors are scheduled to finish the work long before that.
Huckelberry is also contesting $5 million in impact fees the county owes under the RTA plan, which he was involved in creating.
The county's delay would leave the city without the money to build three major roads in the next several years, unless the RTA agrees to put up the county's portion so construction can begin on schedule. The RTA has been hesitant to do this, but officials refused several interview requests for this story.
The projects at risk are:
• The expansion of Houghton Road between Interstate 10 and Tanque Verde Road;
• Construction of the South Kino Parkway overpass on East 22nd Street.
• The expansion of East Broadway.
Huckelberry's decision to withhold funding comes at a time when the county has $73 million in its unrestricted general fund balance, more than double the average over the past eight years.
"Our obligation is to provide those funds over the life of the RTA. If you don't have the revenue, you can't meet the obligation," Huckelberry said, adding transportation funding and the county's general overall fiscal health are unrelated.
Tucson Councilman Steve Kozachik said the money from the county is due when the projects are ready. He contends the county has turned a cooperative plan into a contentious one.
"If the county is obligated to pay, then they should pay on that date," Kozachik said. "We shouldn't be serving as their banker until they can pay up."
Houghton, 22nd DOUBTS
One of the projects in immediate peril for delay is the expansion of Houghton Road between Interstate 10 and Tanque Verde Road. The county owes as much as $9 million for the first phase of that project, between East Valencia Road and East Irvington Road. The total cost will eventually come to $161 million, with the county's share set at $47 million. So far only $1 million of impact fee and bond money has been made available.
The county owes another $9 million for construction of the South Kino Parkway overpass on 22nd Street. The city has already issued stop-work orders for the design on the expansion of 22nd eastward because of the county's inability to pay.
Also facing the potential for delays is the $71 million expansion of East Broadway. The county share is $25 million. Huckelberry said he can't bond for the money until at least 2015 and possibly 2018.
The RTA proposed a work-around for the Kino Parkway overpass, where the RTA would put up the money with the county providing cash later for the design work on 22nd Street improvements, said Priscilla Cornelio, Pima County transportation director.
But there's no fix for Houghton, Huckelberry said, adding he has no idea of the status of design and construction of the road. "We don't have any answers to Houghton," he said.
The delays from the missing county money - which make up the largest pool of local matching funds needed to complete 35 major roadway widenings in the plan - are consistent with a July 2010 Arizona Daily Star investigation showing 25 percent of the RTA's road projects are in jeopardy because of current and projected cost overruns, missing local match money, bond interest and because most of the road projects were underfunded when they were pitched to voters in 2006.
RTA officials have consistently said they will stick to the voter-approved schedule for the 35 road projects, repeatedly calling it their "bible." But missing local money needed for those projects will almost certainly cause some delays.
RTA officials would not comment for this story, but they have said in the past they cannot put more money toward projects than what was listed on the ballot. They've also committed to starting all projects according to the schedule voters approved, even if that means starting with a single intersection upgrade instead of a full road widening.
When the city asked for the RTA money to widen Houghton, it was told by the RTA to try to get the construction money from the county, said Houghton Project Manager M.J. Dillard.
County is the priority
It's not a question of whether the bond money will be available, Huckelberry said, but when. The funding was approved in 1997 by voters throughout the county, and the bonds are paid back with the county's share of state highway user revenue, or HURF, funds. Pima County's portion of that revenue has dropped from $44.5 million in 2007 to a projected $36.6 million this year. On top of that, new development has significantly slowed, reducing impact fees developers pay for roads.
"As those HURF revenues drop, our bonding capacity, our ability to issue those bonds, actually declines" because the money available to pay off new bonds is diminished, Huckelberry said.
However, the county has also been able to stop paying millions for road construction since the RTA started building roads.
When the county does have the money, the unincorporated area will be the priority, Huckelberry said.
He said the county already put $78 million into 15 completed road projects in the city in the past 13 years, but none were RTA projects. The city needs "to take into consideration the money they've already enjoyed from the county," he said. City projects have been included in several county bond packages as an inducement to get city residents to support the bonds. About 47 percent of county voters live in the city.
"We recognize we have an obligation to provide the city the funds that we said we would, and we will. The question is timing," Huckelberry said.
County flush with CASH
The county's refusal to time its payments to the voter-approved RTA work schedule comes when the county is more flush with cash at any time since 2001.
The county's $73 million general fund and unrestricted balances are the highest they have been in eight years.
"This is supposed to be a demerit?" Huckelberry said of the county's fiscal position. "We absolutely have high fund balances. … To do otherwise would be a fiscal disaster." But he insisted the high fund balances "are not connected at all" to HURF money, which comes from gas taxes and license fees.
If the county continues to withhold funds, Transportation Director Jim Glock said the city will ask the RTA for money for the construction projects. If the RTA refuses, the projects will be delayed, Glock said.
Kozachik said the funding shortfall is so severe that local jurisdictions and the RTA might have to go back to voters to ask which projects they want to reconsider because of funding shortfalls.
"We have some significant funding shortages," Kozachik said. "Can we package up the underfunded projects and go back to voters to ask if you really want to keep those projects?"
Contact reporter Rob O'Dell at email@example.com or 573-4346.