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Tim Steller's opinion: Time for a 'radical' reconsideration of Tucson's Regional Transportation Authority
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Tim Steller's opinion: Time for a 'radical' reconsideration of Tucson's Regional Transportation Authority

There was no meeting in January or February.

They canceled the March meeting.

Now, on Thursday, April 22, instead of having a regular board meeting, the Regional Transportation Authority is holding a “retreat.”

The agenda shows they will not be taking action on Pima County’s pressing transportation issues. Instead, they’ll hear from presenters on such remedial topics as “Overview of RTA requirements and committee roles.”

Farhad Moghimi, the authority’s executive director since 2013, told me Tuesday that they chose the retreat idea in part because of “misinformation” circulating about the board’s citizens’ advisory committee. That’s the committee tasked with coming up with a new plan to extend the half-cent sales tax for transportation that is set to expire in 2026.

Voters would have to approve the tax and plan, as we did initially in 2006.

What’s really going on, though, I’ve found, is that discontent with the direction and management of the RTA is flaring all around the county. The current leadership appears to be trying to tamp it down.

Critics point to two main flashpoints:

Moghimi has consolidated power and communications in his office, leaving out technical experts in the local transportation departments and minimizing outside input.

As a result, he sets the priorities, which tend toward traditional road-building and widening that is more highly prized in the suburban communities and less of a priority in urban Tucson.

Moghimi, who makes about $200,000 per year, has plenty of reasons to defer to the suburbs. The way the nine-member board is set up, towns like Marana, Oro Valley and Sahuarita have the same single vote as Tucson and Pima County do, giving them disproportionate power.

Also, Moghimi himself is a former administrator in Marana and Sahuarita.

In a Feb. 22 letter, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero called for an end to this system. She suggested “an appropriate population-based weighted voting structure or Board composition to allow for fair participation and representation of our region’s residents.”

She also asked for proportional funding of projects, noting that Tucson represents about 60% of the sales tax that supports the RTA. Even in the preliminary brainstorming of ideas for projects in the RTA Next plan, she noted, the RTA asked for each jurisdiction to provide ideas worth about $600 million, not differentiating between municipalities as big as Tucson and as small as South Tucson.

Romero also asked for more focus on projects that aren’t about road widening for more single occupancy vehicles. She advocated for pavement preservation and maintenance, technology upgrades, transit improvements, safety improvements and improved biking and walking connections.

The Romero letter was one of several that have warned the RTA isn’t functioning right as it moves toward the crucial next stage.

In a Feb. 17 memo by Pima County transportation director Ana Olivares, she warned of a “lack of transparency in developing the FY 2022-2026 TIP” or Transportation Improvement Program.

In a March 16 memo, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry tried to steer the RTA conversation toward more diverse pursuits than just roadbuilding, advocating for “actively managing traffic demand, providing equity, and increasing mobility for all members of the community, in addition to traditional corridor expansions.”

Former Pima Association of Governments employee Ruth Reiman, who retired in 2019, has also been campaigning publicly against Moghimi. She noted that clean-air and other environmental programs lost funding and employees during his tenure as traditional road projects retained their priority.

Finally, on Tuesday, Pima County Supervisor Rex Scott, who is now the county’s representative on the RTA board, asked for advice from the board as the retreat approaches.

Pima County Supervisors Adelita Grijalva and Matt Heinz, both of whom represent largely urban districts, raised questions about the RTA’s representativeness and openness to outside experts.

“I hope you’ll demand what amounts to a radical opening up of the process to let the public in,” Heinz said.

Moghimi objects to the descriptions of the RTA as closed.

“Over the last 10 months we had 14 different meetings of all our committees and working groups, working through the process to develop a plan that is now endorsed by our citizens’ oversight committee,” he said.

“The misinformation is that they’re not engaged, but they are,” he said. “They’ve been providing opportunities for public comments. That process is ongoing. The only challenge they had is they haven’t received everybody’s list of priorities.”

Tucson, which is creating its own Move Tucson plan, has still not handed over a list.

In his invitation to the upcoming retreat, RTA Regional Board Chair Ed Honea, who is mayor of Marana, painted the retreat as necessary to reinforce the regional spirit of RTA.

“As the regional representatives serving on each of these respective governing bodies, it is important to keep in mind that PAG (Pima Association of Governments) and RTA’s mission is to focus on regional issues collaboratively for the benefit of the entire region in which we live,” Honea wrote.

But of course that is what someone who wields disproportionate power in a regional authority would say.

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

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