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Tim Steller's opinion: Politics over First Avenue plan could be a bad sign
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Tim Steller's opinion: Politics over First Avenue plan could be a bad sign

Two of Tucson’s biggest issues are colliding on North First Avenue.

The stretch of First between East Grant Road and East Prince Road is one of the most dangerous places for pedestrians, in a city where people who dare not to drive are routinely killed.

North First Avenue is also the place where the city’s decision whether to participate in the next phase of the Regional Transportation Authority will likely be decided over the next three weeks.

A series of meetings this month will determine how the RTA responds to city demands for changes, and whether the city will drop out of the RTA as a result.

The ramifications could be felt in the thump of vehicles against bodies in places like North First Avenue.

It’s an area I got to know, from a pedestrian’s perspective, back in 2014. That December I wrote about the death of Eritrean refugee Rusom Okubamichael as he crossed North First Avenue to return to his family’s apartment on East Navajo Road. He was one of two pedestrians and a bicyclist struck in the area that week.

That year, Tucson police recorded 11 pedestrian deaths, a number that seems fantastic in retrospect. On New Year’s Eve 2021, 12 days ago, two pedestrians died in separate incidents after being struck by drivers. The deaths of Manfred G. Rivas, 49, and Cari Ann Conway, 35, representing the 32nd and 33rd pedestrian deaths of the year. That scale has become typical in Tucson. 

We are supposedly working to fix this problem. Tucson has a “complete streets” policy and program, and the Regional Transportation Authority’s projects typically include improvements for pedestrian safety. But the project to improve North First Avenue between East Grant Road and East River Road, approved in the 2006 ballot issue that established the RTA, is stuck in wrangling between the city and RTA.

In November and December, the city presented a proposal to two RTA committees to scale back the planned expansion of that stretch of North First Avenue. Instead of growing to six lanes wide, it would remain four lanes but have new medians, controlled left-turn lanes, fixed intersections, better traffic-light coordination, bike-lane improvements and other amenities.

“Putting in a continuous median is one of the most effective things you can do for pedestrian safety,” Tucson’s complete streets project manager, Patrick Hartley, told the RTA board last month. “It breaks up that crossing, and if people are going to be crossing against a signal, we’d rather see them standing on a raised median than standing in a two-way left-turn lane.”

The city’s proposal responded to a request, made Sept. 10 by deputy RTA director James Degrood, that jurisdictions “provide ideas on how projects may be delivered within budget.”

If the RTA were to continue with the expansion to six lanes, it would cost more than $90 million, Hartley told the RTA board last month. But if the RTA were to accept the city’s proposed limitation of the project’s scope, it would remain within the budgeted $74 million.

Since traffic has not increased as it was projected to in 2006, the result would still be as good as or better than what was projected with a six-lane project back in 2006, Hartley said. In fact, the amount of traffic on that stretch has declined by about 1% per year from 1998 through 2021, Hartley said, and there is 25% less traffic than projected in 2006.

“It would outperform what was presented to voters,” Hartley told me Monday. “The traffic volume and growth that the RTA was based on never really materialized.”

You would think the RTA board members would jump at such an opportunity, but they didn’t.

Pima County Supervisor Rex Scott, Sahuarita Mayor Tom Murphy, Arizona Department of Transportation representative Ted Maxwell and executive director Farhad Moghimi all expressed varying types and degrees of skepticism about the requested changes to the project.

Some didn’t like the idea of changing what the voters approved. It has happened once before, though: City objections led to a slimming down of the Broadway widening, between Euclid Avenue and Country Club Road, from eight lanes to six.

Moghimi told me Tuesday he would prefer a process like the one for Broadway, which, he noted, “went through a very extensive process in advance,” before RTA approval of the change.

Maxwell said he travels those north-south roads frequently and sees a traffic problem.

“It is a heavily trafficked road with huge traffic concerns,” he said.

For me, on Tuesday, that proved not to be true. I drove up North First Avenue to Orange Grove Road just before 8 a.m., then drove back down. It took all of 8 minutes, 30 seconds to drive from Orange Grove to Grant at morning rush hour. It took just over five minutes to go the three miles from River to Grant. That's more than acceptable, though of course it was just one morning’s drive.

On Wednesday, the RTA’s technical management committee will consider approving the city’s proposed narrowing of the North First project. Then on Jan. 27, the RTA governing board meets again, to consider a slate of issues including the city’s desire for more proportional voting rights and a quicker scheduling of in-city projects.

The City Council has set a Feb. 1 deadline for deciding whether to proceed in the so-called "RTA Next" process, which would re-up the current half-cent sales tax for another 20 years.

Tuesday afternoon, the council unanimously stated at a study session that they’re not bluffing. They will pull out if their concerns are not addressed at the Jan. 27 meeting and pursue a ballot measure to extend an existing sales tax to fund road projects in the city only.

Mayor Regina Romero cited the reception of the city’s proposed scale-back of the North First Avenue project as a bad sign.

“Even when we work hard, do our due diligence, engage small business, engage neighbors … we get resistance and pushback from the leadership of the RTA,” she said.

That could also be bad news for the people walking, biking and trying to avoid cars along the city’s dangerous roads.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at or 520-807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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