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UA Prof: Disenfranchisement, not regionalism, defended in RTA status quo
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UA Prof: Disenfranchisement, not regionalism, defended in RTA status quo

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

As a firm believer in the importance of regional coordination in transportation planning, you might think I would be thrilled by several recent guest opinion pieces in the Arizona Daily Star touting the virtues of regionalism.

But what I see being described and defended is a far cry from the effective regional coordination that has helped shape forward-looking transportation systems in many large and small metro areas across the U.S.

What I see being defended here is not regional coordination, but rather a specific system of decision-making designed to give outsize influence to small suburban jurisdictions while minimizing the representation of the majority of the region’s residents who live in the city of Tucson.

Good regional coordination does not require such an approach, and there are inherent problems with this type of decision-making system. National studies by my colleagues here at the University of Arizona and at Virginia Tech have shown that regional governance structures that, like ours, lack representational voting tend to disenfranchise urban residents and people of color.

They also tend to result in more funding for road building at the expense of investments in public transit. There are many better ways to structure regional decision-making, including weighted voting or expanding the number of representatives for larger jurisdictions.

Here is what I mean by a system that lacks representational voting: Tucson’s one representative on the nine-member Pima Association of Governments and the Regional Transportation Authority governing bodies, Mayor Regina Romero, represents the voices of 542,000 Tucson residents. Mayor Ed Honea has one vote for Marana’s 45,000 residents. This means that as a resident of Tucson, I have less than one-tenth the representation in our regional governance system as a Marana resident.

In addition to failing the sniff test of basic fairness and democratic norms, such skewed representation on a regional body charged with deciding how to prioritize billions of dollars in transportation spending over the next two decades presents a serious racial, environmental and climate justice issue for our region.

Tucson residents make up about 52% of the region’s total population; 62% of the region’s Hispanic/Latino population; 66% of the region’s households living in poverty; 81% of the region’s public transit commuters, and 60% of people under 35. And where does more than 60% of tax revenues going into the RTA come from? You guessed it. The city of Tucson. Yet Mayor Romero’s one vote on behalf of Tucson residents on the regional council amounts to just an 11% stake.

In addition to being a racial and environmental justice issue, the insistence on sticking with the current unrepresentative system is also a political problem in the making.

Those making decisions within PAG and the RTA should think very carefully about whether a system that diminishes the voices of a majority of voters in our region is the best path forward to secure voter approval for the next generation of RTA funding. If this system is not changed, Tucson leaders and voters are correct to consider whether continued involvement in the RTA is in the best interest of city residents and our growing transportation investment needs.

Regional coordination is a necessity for responsible, responsive, and forward-looking transportation investment and planning. But it is minority rule and disenfranchisement, not true regional coordination, that I hear being defended by those speaking out in favor of the status quo of one vote per jurisdiction.

The fact that effective regional cooperation and coordination is alive and well in places that have embraced representational systems of regional decision-making undercuts arguments being made that moving to such a system will weaken cooperation and coordination in our region. It is long past time for our region to change this outdated and unjust mode of regional decision-making.

Arlie Adkins is an associate professor of urban planning at the University of Arizona and has nearly two decades of transportation planning experience in Arizona, California, Oregon, and Washington, D.C.


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