Only 16% of Tucson-area residents are happy with the condition of the local roads they drive on, but identifying solutions for a smoother driving experience is complicated, a new community poll shows.
An overwhelming majority of community members surveyed — 78% — said they are dissatisfied with road conditions in the greater Tucson area, the Arizona Daily Star-Strongpoint Opinion Research poll found.
However, a growing number of locals are becoming weary of repeated requests to raise taxes to pay for road maintenance. Forty-two percent of city residents said they’d be willing to pay more taxes for road maintenance inside the city limits, but that number falls to 32% when talking about support for additional taxes for a county-controlled project.
The figures are down from a year ago when a similar Arizona Daily Star community poll found 70% of local residents said they would be willing to pay for increased road maintenance. However, the 2018 poll was commissioned in January — roughly 10 months before voters rejected Proposition 463, which would have allowed the county to issue bonds to fund $430 million in road maintenance.
Of those respondents who were hesitant to support additional funding for road repairs, roughly 60% cited “a seemingly endless cycle of additional funding asks from taxpayers.”
Trust also seems to play a major issue in the decline in support for future tax increases. Forty-one percent of those who said they wouldn’t support a tax increase noted a lack of trust in the city government as a primary reason.
Asked the same question about Pima County and the figure increased to 51%.
The news doesn’t come as a surprise to Deputy County Administrator Carmine DeBonis, who has been going to luncheons and community groups to talk about road conditions.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people and consistently they are dissatisfied with the conditions of roads in Pima County and in other areas,” DeBonis said.
He has met plenty of critics who are weary of the narrative that the county is serious about addressing a billion-dollar backlog of road maintenance.
Some resistance, he said, is borne from a misunderstanding on how cities, towns and counties pay for road maintenance, largely out of the gas tax and the vehicle license tax.
DeBonis recalls one man who had painstakingly estimated how much he and his neighbors had paid in county property taxes, arguing they themselves had paid enough in taxes to warrant repairs in his subdivision.
However, property taxes collected by the county go to a number of departments, including the Sheriff’s Department.
Rarely, DeBonis said, does the county take money out its general fund to pay for road maintenance.
Complicating the mistrust is the 1997 road bond approved by voters. That bond paid for a number of new roads in Pima County, but it came at price, requiring that it be paid back not with a new tax increase, but from a portion of the county’s share of its Highway User Revenue Funds.
Flash forward to 2019 and the county is still paying off the bond, which has hamstrung its efforts to address a backlog.
Pima County Republican Party First Vice Chairman Chris King said the county could put millions more into road repair without raising taxes, but its priorities are skewed by a Democratic majority on the Board of Supervisors.
King said that majority protects County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, who King blames for what he sees as a series of poor financial decisions.
King was the chair of a small group that opposed Proposition 463 last year, which failed with 56% of county voters rejecting the proposal.
King said a majority of residents simply don’t trust Huckelberry or the county staff to fix the roads.
“The county has a record of failure and mismanagement of funds,” King said.
He points to a number of county-funded projects, including millions spent on the construction of the 131-mile multi-modal path known as The Loop and millions spent to build new facilities that have been leased by a high-altitude balloon company known as World View as examples of poor funding decisions.
Those are millions of dollars that could have been spent on road repair, he argues.
DeBonis notes that these arguments are complicated and shifting county funding away from projects is not as cut and dry as critics like to suggest.
The Loop, for example, was initially funded as part of a massive flood control measure, although the Army Corps of Engineers also paid for a large portion of the project. Neither of these funding sources could have been easily shifted to road repair.
But DeBonis concedes that changing public opinion, which is a prerequisite for any new publicly supported road project like a bond or a tax increase, is going to be a long process.
“Trust is earned and not given,” DeBonis said. “We need to continue to do things to gain the trust of people who may feel otherwise.”
Huckelberry said the county has largely been held hostage by the state in terms of being able to raise revenue for road repairs.
For the past decade, the county has sought additional funding for transportation infrastructure maintenance from the state, via an increase in state shared gas tax revenue, which would require the Legislature increasing the gas tax, and through local taxation via bond measures submitted to voters, Huckelberry said.
“Neither has been forthcoming. The Legislature is averse to raising taxes and county voters have said no twice to bonding for road repair via the secondary property tax, in 2015 and again in 2018. If either of those extra funding methods had happened it’s likely the Star’s poll results would be different,” he said.
Another funding source, the Regional Transportation Authority, which spends roughly $100 million on roads annually in the greater Tucson area, has been in place for decades. However, slightly more than half of poll respondents — 54% — told the Star that they know “a little bit” or “nothing” about the RTA.
The $2.1 billion RTA plan, approved by Pima County voters in May 2006, is funded by a half-cent sales tax that is set expire in June 2026. Discussion is underway about asking voters to extend the plan for another 20 years to address regional transportation needs.
Some community leaders have discussed whether to expand the half-cent tax to a full cent.
Asked if they would vote to extend the RTA, 29% of poll respondents said they “don’t know” while 40% said they would be likely to extend it. Eighteen percent said they were unlikely to vote for an extension and 14% declined to take a stance.