March 1, 2006 - With a little more than two months until Pima County residents vote on the Regional Transportation Authority plan, which would raise the sales tax and provide what officials say would be $2 billion worth of transportation and transit improvements, supporters and opponents are voicing strong opinions on the plan.
Three groups have formed to promote or defeat the proposed 20-year transportation plan along with its half-cent sales tax increase.
Yes!! for Regional Transportation members are encouraging voters to approve the plan. Enough, one of the first groups to form against the plan, along with Tucson Needs a Real Transportation Plan, have both become active in speaking out against the plan and the increase in sales tax.
Yes!! for Regional Transportation has drawn support from many, including local fire departments, environmentalists and car dealers.
To fund public outreach, the organization has raised $114,600 as of the required filing date of Jan. 31, according to campaign finance records obtained from the Pima County Division of Elections.
Southern Arizona Home Builders Association donated $25,000, as did Granite Construction, Inc.
Jim Click Ford, Inc. was one of the top contributors with $50,000.
Dave Richards, branch manager for the Tucson sector of Granite Construction, supports the plan.
"Tucson has really done nothing to address its transportation (needs) and this is at least a first step in addressing the problem," Richards said.
Contributions to Yes are being used to purchase advertising in radio and print and market the plan via telephone, said Yes chair Rick Myers, who was also chairman for the 35-member citizens' advisory committee that helped design the plan.
Richards said that if the plan is approved, numerous jobs will be brought to Pima County in the area of construction.
"It's a very important measure for our community," he said. "Tucson has transportation problems and we feel like if they are going to be addressed, a measure like this has to be passed."
Myers agrees with Richards and the other supporters of the plan. Myers, a retired IBM executive, has volunteered his time and effort in speaking out to anyone who will listen about the plan, attending neighborhood meetings, rotary clubs and formal public outreach sessions. He said he believes Tucson needs to vote 'yes' on May 16.
"We firmly believe that this is important for our future," he said.
Transportation plans have been brought to the voters in the past, but not all have been approved. Myers remains hopeful voters will keep an open mind and think about the future, he said.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," he said. "They should judge this (plan) on its own merits and not allow their frustrations with some of the past failures to taint their views."
John Kromko of Enough has worked for years to fight off increase in taxation and transportation improvements throughout Pima County, and the RTA plan is no different, he said.
"We started many years ago," he said. "And we've put it down every time."
Kromko said he believes that officials skew the public's view as to the dire need for transportation and transit improvements.
"They keep saying we're going to die if we don't get it," he said. "It's proven to not be true."
Ken O'Day, chair for Tucson Needs a Real Transportation Plan, agrees that the RTA plan is not necessary to deal with expanding growth of the county. O'Day attended many of the citizen outreach meetings organized by the Regional Transportation Authority during its voter outreach phase.
He said the plan lacks vision, and he fears it will end up causing more harm than good to local businesses and roadways.
"I agree that we need to do something," but this is not it, he said.
O'Day believes the RTA did not spend enough time on the plan, and the time line for projects and its costs are not accurate.
"People need to realize that a lot of them won't get built," he said about the proposed projects.
O'Day, of the Campbell-Grant Neighborhood Association, is especially disillusioned with the proposed widening of Grant Road.
The plan proposes widening Grant Road from Oracle to Swan roads into a six-lane arterial with dedicated bus lanes, costing more than $161 million.
The RTA has set aside roughly $8 million in right-of-way acquisition to purchase homes and businesses in order to complete the widening process.
"We will offer people fair market value for their homes and for their businesses," Myers said. "It's a tough thing, but we've tried to mitigate the impact as best we could."
O'Day doesn't think enough was done to look at possible alternatives to widening Grant Road. He said the project would force many businesses out of the area and cause homeowners to flee as well.
He also is not happy with the project being estimated for completion in the year 2025, he said.
At a debate held Feb. 22 at Empire High School on the southeast side, O'Day sat on the panel and spoke out as to why he believes the plan should be struck down when it appears on the ballot.
He told the more than 60 audience members that he has walked along Grant Road and estimated that more than 300 homeowners and businesses will be affected by the project.
Myers, who sat in the audience at the debate, understands O'Day's point of view, but said something needed to be proposed for Grant Road.
"Mr. O'Day has a very strong opinion. Grant Road is today the most congested roadway. How could you develop a 20-year plan and ignore one of the least safe and most congested roadways? It's not a perfect world, there were some tough calls that we had to make," he said.
Mike Hayes, vice-president of the Campbell-Grant HOA, stands with O'Day in opposing the plan. He, too, said the climate of Grant Road would be changed forever if voters approved the plan.
"I try not to be, simply, a 'not in my backyard,' even if it is," he said. "I think it's going to be negative. I'm afraid we're going to have empty buildings and bladed lots, then maybe, not enough money to finish the project."
Myers said it is possible but unlikely to run out of money for a project because of the checks-and-balances required by the Legislature to alert the public as to the project's progress.
If approved, a citizens' oversight committee organized with two members from each municipality voted on by the RTA board will keep up-to-date on the cost of the projects, the time line and completion of roadway improvements, he said.
Each year the committee will publish a report on the progress in local newspapers. By doing so, Myers is confidant residents will be aware of the projects completed and any unforeseen complications, he said.
Myers said the plan is accurate in the cost allowed for projects.
"We didn't want to over-promise and under-deliver," he said.
The committees tried to be as accurate as possible, he said.
The law requires the RTA to reach out to voters for approval if any portion of the plan is changed, such as a project added or deleted from the initial projection, he said. By doing so, voters are given more control over the project.
"It's not like it will be a surprise," he said. "Substantial changes can't be made to the plan without going to the voters. This is the closest thing you can get to a contract with a government."
O'Day worries the wording of the plan could be changed without voter knowledge, thus deleting or shifting money around without voter approval, he said.
Myers said that couldn't happen.
Larry Hecker, serving as Yes' treasurer, sat with O'Day at the RTA debate in Vail. He said the plan is fair and accurate in all areas and not everyone was going to be completely happy with all proposed projects.
"This plan was created by people like you and me," he said. "I didn't get everything I wanted. There's always going to be people that like to stand on the outside and throw stones."
Myers and Hecker both referred to those types of people as cave people - Citizens Against Virtually Everything.
Bill Heuisler, also an RTA opponent, participated in the debate and said he was not against everything, just the plan.
"We have a problem here in Pima County, so when we do talk about increasing taxes, we have to talk about the impact. We want to make sure we can afford all of the plan. Let's be smart instead of just throwing away money," he said at the debate.
While no specific schedule has been released, Myers said Yes!! for Regional Transportation will continue speaking out about the plan using debates and meetings, until the voters ultimately cast their vote on May 16.
Erin Schmidt is a staff writer covering the Catalina Foothills community and schools. She can be reached at 797-4384 ext 105 or firstname.lastname@example.org.