Here’s something that might generate some skeptical groans: When it comes to the quality of highways, arterial and collector streets, metro Tucson is now almost exactly in the middle of the pack among large American cities.
That’s the finding of the most recent urban roads report from TRIP, a national transportation research group, which found that of the 70 urban areas with populations over 500,000, Tucson came in at 35th, just ahead of Toledo, Ohio.
Back in 2013, the same report famously deemed Tucson’s major roads the fifth-worst in the country, but in 2015 the area fell off the top-25 list and continued its way down the list for the 2016 report, released late last year.
“It beats being in the top of the pack,” said County Administrator Huckelberry.
Daryl Cole, the city’s transportation chief, called the report’s findings “great news.”
For the most recent round, 30 percent of roads considered were in poor condition, down from 32 the year before. Though it came out in 2016, the report was looking at 2014 road data gathered by the Federal Highway Administration.
At the extreme ends of the report were California’s Bay Area, where 71 percent of arterials and collectors were in poor condition, and Jacksonville, Florida, where just 4 percent were. Phoenix came in 57th with a reported 17 percent of major thoroughfares in poor shape.
Local officials chalked the steady progress up to city and county pavement preservation, restoration and resurfacing programs that together have improved conditions along several hundred miles of high-volume metro streets.
Tucson’s efforts have been funded largely with by Proposition 409, a 2012 $100 million property-tax-funded bond package narrowly approved by voters, and a 2012 $20 million City Council appropriation for preservation work. The county has $4.5 million set aside for road preservation for the current fiscal year, a representative amount in recent years.
Though 15 percent of the city’s 409 funds were dedicated to local and residential streets — 58 miles got some attention as a result — the heavy focus for preservation and restoration at both the city and county level has been on arterials and collectors, which see the most use.
While the story of major roads appears to be one of steady improvement, it certainly doesn’t apply to residential or local streets, the vast majority of which are in failed or poor condition.
Between last summer and this March, the percentage of failed to very poor local streets in city limits rose from 19.8 to 27.7 percent, due largely to those formerly considered just poor slipping further down the road-rating system. Those in poor condition constitute just over 51 percent, meaning nearly 80 percent of local city roads are in rough shape, according to roadconditions data provided to the Road Runner. At the county level, just over 65 percent of local roads are poor or failing.
In his memo about the TRIP report, Huckelberry acknowledged those conditions, writing that if local roads had been taken into consideration, “It is likely we would once again be listed. Our local roadways require extensive repair and rehabilitation and in some cases, replacement, all of which is unfunded.”
The county has previously estimated that it would take at least $800 million to repair all roads in the county, including Tucson’s and other jurisdictions’.
Those local street conditions, as well as what she described as the county’s “woefully inadequate” pavement-preservation program for collectors and arterials, are why Supervisor Ally Miller says she is still frequently hearing complaints and receiving petitions demanding repaving from northwest Tucson constituents, despite the findings of the TRIP report. Three-quarters of local streets in her district are in failed or poor condition, the highest percentage of the five districts, according to county road data.
So, how to address the persistently poor condition of more lightly used local streets?
City officials are crossing their fingers that this May voters will approve a proposed half-cent city sales tax, $100 million of the proceeds of which would go to road restoration, repair and resurfacing. This time around, 40 percent of those proceeds would go to residential streets, up from 409’s 15 percent.
Given that the city is on track to complete all of the promised 409 pavement projects and even add several with savings, like the ongoing work along South 12th Avenue and Valencia Road, Cole hopes that voters will again entrust the city with another $100 million in road funds this May 16.
The picture is not as clear at the county level. Huckelberry and other officials were hoping the Legislature would approve a 10-cent hike in the state gas tax, which is the largest source of revenue for county road work. A statewide measure is dead, and while another measure to allow counties to put their own gas taxes to voters may still have legs, Gov. Doug Ducey expressed skepticism about gas taxes in general.
Miller also takes a dim view of them, in part due to her distrust of how the county spends the gas-tax proceeds it’s receiving.
The county has also pushed the Legislature to allow the Regional Transportation Authority to ask voters for a 10-year half-cent sales tax dedicated largely to road repair within the next several years. While there’s no such bill in the Legislature this cycle, Miller said she is exploring the possibility of supporting such a measure. She had previously advocated for extending the RTA after it expires in 2026.
She emphasized her support would be contingent on the findings of a soon-to-be-finished audit of how the RTA spent its money over its first decade, as well as on guarantees that proceeds would be spent on repairs and not siphoned off elsewhere.
Without some sort of action from the Legislature, Huckelberry said the status quo is here to stay. In that situation, the best hope for increasing funds for repairing local streets and other neglected roads is to wait for debt-service costs on the 1997 Highway User Revenue Fund Bonds to decline, which won’t really start in earnest until 2021.
“We’re still several years away from any local road repair,” he said.
DOWN THE ROAD
Major work on the Tangerine Road-Dove Mountain Boulevard intersection is set to start at 7 a.m. Monday.
Crews will work on the east median through Tuesday, with shifts stretching from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Westbound Tangerine will be reduced to one lane, though dedicated left- and right-turn lanes will be unaffected.
From Tuesday to Wednesday, March 22, crews will work on the north and south medians with the same shifts. North- and southbound lanes will be reduced to one lane. Farther east, workers will install sewer infrastructure across Tangerine at Sage Brook Road on Monday, March 13, and Tuesday, March 14, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
This coming weekend, the new Sunset Road Bridge will be closed starting at 4 a.m. Saturday to allow for additional work. It will reopen at 4 a.m. Monday, March 20.