Jean Johnson and a number of her neighbors in the Moondance Patio Homes subdivision have been pushing for road repairs there for the better part of a decade.
County transportation officials have been sympathetic to residents of the Casas Adobes neighborhood on the northwest side, Johnson told the Road Runner, but consistently told her there was only money for patchwork repairs. Though not solving the problem, Johnson said the department has been responsive to requests for pothole repair.
And then came the Pima County Road Property Tax.
Approved by the Board of Supervisors over the summer, the 25-cent primary tax is expected to generate nearly $20 million annually for the repair of local streets like Johnson’s. Unincorporated Pima County, which includes Casas Adobes, is expected to get $8.2 million of that total.
So, how to spend a sum of money that everyone agrees pales in comparison to the scale of the task? Estimates for improving all county roads — including those in incorporated towns and cities — to decent condition is around $1 billion.
After a lively and sometimes contentious meeting last Tuesday, the Pima County Transportation Advisory Board now has an official project list, which is going to the Board of Supervisors for consideration Dec. 12.
Per recommendations from the county transportation department, the list is composed entirely of roadways that have a PASER rating of 5, which means they are in poor but not yet failed condition and can be brought back to fair condition for less money than a failed road. Those with heavier usage were also more highly prioritized.
But Johnson’s subdivision, whose roads were rated as a 4, did not make the cut — though it nearly did.
Back in September, the advisory board unanimously approved the transportation department’s methodology, with the understanding that repair projects that did not meet the department’s criteria could be proposed and approved by the full committee.
After a number of public meetings attended by Johnson and many others, the appointees from county Supervisors Ally Miller’s and Steve Christy’s districts submitted additions, as well as a number of subdivisions to be bumped to the next year to make way for the new projects. Moondance Patio Homes was among those to be added.
“We appreciate the time they put in and we’re really, really hoping that this committee will approve their revisions, because it would make a lot of people in our neighborhood ... very happy,” Johnson told the 13-member body before the vote.
However, by a 7-6 vote, the modified plan was voted down and the staff-recommended plan was adopted.
“Don’t bother asking me for my opinion if you already intend to ignore it,” Johnson told the Road Runner after the vote. “Don’t do a public display of, ‘Oh, we’re talking to the citizens.’”
Committee Chair Lucretia Free, who voted for the modified plan, said a lot of time was invested in outreach and that the modifications reflected the informed input of numerous residents.
“We’re not going to solve the roads problem, but we could do something,” she said of the proceeds from the road property tax. “And why not do something that accommodates requests from people who are pissed off about roads in their area? Why not give them a little bit of something?”
Fellow member Chris DeSimone said the board majority was acting as a “rubber stamp” for the transportation department by adopting its recommendation.
But those who supported the staff plan had some compelling math in their favor. By prioritizing higher-traffic PASER 5 roads, the $8.2 million in projects this year is projected to impact 132 subdivisions, 10,638 parcels and 95.6 miles of road. With the modifications, those figures dropped to 96 subdivisions, 6,998 parcels and 69.5 miles of road. In District 1, which had the most proposed substitutions, the road mileage dropped from nearly 32 miles to 12.6 miles, a decline of over 60 percent.
Furthermore, by delaying work on PASER 5 roads, there was a risk that they might fall to a failing rating of 4, meaning repair costs would rise significantly. Assuming all of those delayed by the substitutions did so in a single year — a pretty unlikely prospect — those deferred maintenance costs would be nearly $7 million.
It was the potential magnitude of the deferred maintenance issue that concerned committee member Amber Smith the most, though she clarified that she wasn’t opposed to substitutions themselves.
“For me, it wasn’t about politics,” she said. “It was about taking the most conservative approach to prevent further increasing the amount of deferred maintenance costs.”
For committee member Bob Gugino, who made the motion to adopt the staff recommendation, the criteria adopted strips the messy politics of road repair out of the process and allows for “an objective determination” of how to maximize the impact of the relatively small pot of money.
While saying his “heart goes out” to those who took the time to attend the District 1 and 4 meetings to advocate for their neighborhood roads, he argued that local roads are bad in most parts of the county, not just in the neighborhoods whose residents participated in the process.
“I don’t think because someone doesn’t show up that they don’t have rights,” he added. He also pushed back on the idea that the committee was acting as a rubber stamp, telling the Road Runner that if the plan presented by the transportation department “didn’t pass the test of being objective, I wouldn’t have been in favor of it.”
Among those who have advocated the hardest for their roads’ inclusion are Green Valley residents, many of whom are disappointed in the committee’s decision.
That’s because few roads in the community meet the adopted criteria and just $51,437 of work is planned in the community this year. The substitutions the Green Valley Council pushed for would have raised that amount to around $600,000, according to a letter from council president Don Weaver to county administration and the county supervisors.
“This is not an acceptable solution for our citizens in Green Valley; we have a 95% voter turnout in Green Valley,” the letter reads. “Future proposals by the county will never receive their support if you support the recommendation by the county staff.”
While she understands the logic of the adopted plan — getting “the most streets done for the least money” — Johnson thinks it’s politically “crazy.”
“We’ve done everything we were supposed to do and now they’ve decided to do streets for people who aren’t even complaining,” she added.