Growth has county playing 'catch up' - Tucson Local Media: Import

Growth has county playing 'catch up'

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Posted: Sunday, August 21, 2005 11:00 pm

Editor's note: The EXPLORER is taking a look into the Regional Transportation Authority's proposed transportation improvement plan, which will appear on the May ballot. If approved, Pima County residents will see a half-cent increase in sales tax to pay for the projected $1.9 billion funding shortfall in transportation and transit improvements over the next 20 years. This article will focus on the recommended east and west corridor projects as they relate to the Northwest and Foothills areas.

August 17, 2005 - Roxy Johnson is retired. She lives in Oro Valley and lives a happy life - that is, until she needs to travel the roadways. Johnson, who admits she may not be as mobile as others in Pima County, wishes something could be done about the state of traffic congestion within the county.

"They need to get out of their offices and see what people are dealing with," Johnson said about Tucson's transit and traffic officials.

Johnson remembers simpler times, times when, 16 years ago, she could drive a few minutes to the high school were she worked in Marana and not have to wait through three or four traffic lights. Now, that is not the case.

She lives near the cross streets of Lambert Lane and La Cañada Drive. The roadways she used to travel daily are now congested with standard utility vehicles, trucks and cars.

"Tucson is an automobile town," she said.

Johnson is concerned about the growing wait times at Cortaro Farms Road and Ina Road as they intersect with Interstate 10.

Thousands of motorists travel through the two intersections daily and find themselves waiting for a train to pass, often sitting through two or more traffic lights before being able to get onto the interstate.

According to Johnson and many other Pima County residents, an overpass is crucial at the intersections. On any given morning during rush hour, it is easy to spot the frustrated, annoyed and angry motorists as they find themselves unable to quickly enter the interstate to begin their daily commute.

It is for that reason that Johnson will give her vote to the Regional Transportation Authority's proposed transportation improvement plan when it appears on the May ballot. As she sees it, the draft includes three proposed projects that affect east and west mobility within the Northwest and Foothills.

One of the most supported improvement projects is the Twin Peaks and Camino de Manana Corridor project. The project would create an overpass over the Union Pacific Railroad at I-10 and Twin Peaks Road. An overpass is one way the authority estimates it can dramatically decrease motorist wait time. An overpass would decrease vehicle gridlock caused by a passing train.

In addition to the overpass, a new two-lane arterial from Linda Vista Road to Tangerine Road would be constructed, decreasing the traveling distance by six miles for residents entering the Tucson city limits from Oro Valley, Dove Mountain and Marana, according to the RTA.

Extending from I-10 at Twin Peaks Road northeast to Linda Vista, a new four-lane divided arterial would be constructed. Also, Twin Peaks would be reconstructed as a four-lane arterial west of I-10 to Silverbell Road, with a new bridge over the Santa Cruz River.

Continental Ranch resident Sandy Padilla cannot wait until improvements are made to the area, which will allow easier access to the interstate and decrease the distance she must travel.

Padilla often travels farther than necessary simply to avoid traffic congestion. She said that if the roads were widened, bridges were constructed and overpasses were erected, the wait time would dramatically decrease.

She may no longer have to travel south on Silverbell to Ina just to get onto the interstate, she said.

RTA board member and Marana Mayor Ed Honea said that, if approved, the plan would benefit Marana residents tremendously.

One activity that Honea said would increase traffic flow and alleviate congestion would be improvement of Tangerine Road, what Honea refers to as Marana's cross-town freeway.

As it stands, Tangerine sees about 16,000 to 28,000 vehicles a day, according to the RTA. Suggested improvements to the road are widening it to a four-lane desert parkway between the interstate and La Cañada and adding bike lanes and raised medians.

Additional turning lanes also would be constructed, with traffic signals at key intersections.

Honea said improvements on Tangerine would benefit not only Marana residents, by offering them easier access to the interstate and Oracle Road, but also residents of two huge master planned subdivisions, Dove Mountain and Rancho Vistoso, both north of Tangerine.

As he puts it, Tangerine is no longer a rural back road. It has become a site for business and residential development.

"These roads are very important," he said. "It benefits a lot of people."

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry is the chairman of the RTA's Technical-Management Committee, and, as he puts it, Pima County is behind in transportation improvements and motorists are "paying the price."

The RTA plan, which includes about 15 major transportation improvement projects along with mass transit improvements, is a large part of playing catchup to the county's transportation needs.

Twenty-five years ago, Oro Valley's population was less than 3,000, Huckelberry said, today it is about 40,000. Marana's population 20 years ago was about 2,500 and today it is steadily growing with about 30,000.

The Northwest has grown to more than 150,000 people in the past 20 years, Huckelberry said, and, as far as roadway improvements go, the regional governments have not met the demand, he said.

According to a congestion study out of Texas, Tucson surpassed Phoenix's percentage of congested roadways, Huckelberry said.

Maricopa County voters passed an increase in sales tax to improve roadways, and even though the population continues to increase, congestion is decreasing. Huckelberry said Tucson now needs to follow suit.

"We can't solve these problems overnight," he said, but he added that passing the plan when it appears on the ballot in May is a step in the right direction.

Marana has already enacted a sales tax to improve its roadway system. If the RTA plan is passed, Honea said the town will void the tax and let the RTA's sales tax take over the planned projects.

Even though roadway improvements may be in the works in Marana, Honea said he still believes deeply in the RTA's proposed improvement plan.

"If we're not successful, we may not get another chance," Honea said, adding that improving roadways and transit is "something that makes the quality of life better."

To reach voters, the RTA has been holding various citizen outreach meetings all over the county. The meetings are a time for residents to speak their minds about the projects, and they are a way for the officials to get a pulse on what the public truly thinks of the plan - a plan they ultimately must approve.

One such meeting was held Aug. 9 at the Sun City Vistoso Community Auditorium. About 75 people attended.

Citizens Advisory Committee chairman Rick Myers told residents that, so far, comments have been positive and the members of the committees are reading each and every one.

"A lot of talking, a lot of listening," Myers said, has been going on throughout the monthlong public outreach project, which will end at the end of August. A second round of meetings will begin in September.

"The more we talk about it, the better chance we can have," Myers said. "We're getting a lot of input."

Myers echoed Huckelberry's thoughts when he told residents that much of the plan involves improving roadways that should have been improved years ago.

"I don't like it because there's not enough new in it," he said. "It's a good plan, but the county is really just playing catchup."

"There are not a lot of brand new alternatives," he said.

Marilyn Peterson lives in Sun City Vistoso and attended the public meeting. So far, she said, she is impressed with the proposed plan but wishes some improvements would be made with shuttles to the age-restricted community.

Transit improvements make up a percentage of the plan, with new bus pullouts, extended transit hours of operation and express routes. Peterson said any improvement to help people get to where they need to go would be for the better.

"I have friends who have no way to get around," she said. "That's a darn shame."

So far, Peterson said she has been impressed by the public outreach and the information she has been able to receive from the RTA members.

"It's a great coming together of all groups," Peterson said. "We need input from all over."

Echoing sentiments about the need for input is citizens advisory committee member and chairman of the Northwest Traffic Coalition Martin Browning.

"I know something about traffic," Browning said, adding that the county has been "getting traffic like you wouldn't believe."

Browning, who lives in and represents residents in unincorporated Pima County, said roadways need to be improved to alleviate congestion and speed up commute times.

One area that mainly affects residents in the Northwest is the Magee Road Corridor which, with the proposed plan, would see some major improvements. Browning should know. He lives in the area of Magee and Shannon Road, he said.

Magee would be widened to a four-lane arterial between Thornydale Road and Oracle, eliminating the "jog" at La Cholla Boulevard.

A new bridge would be constructed over the Cañada del Oro Wash, and new turning lanes and traffic lights would be added at the Thornydale, Shannon, La Cholla and Mona Lisa Road intersections.

Somewhere between 16,000 and 28,000 vehicles travel daily on Magee, according to the RTA, and the roadway would provide continuous east-west connectivity to the Northwest area, according to the RTA.

Browning said he understands why residents may be hesitant to approve the RTA's plan, but he said the improvements to the roadways can't be put off any longer.

"People do not like taxes," Browning said. "But we've got to do it."

Donna Heidinger, resident and member of the La Cañada Magee Neighborhood Association, said improvements on Magee are desperately needed, adding that the roadway is one of the greatest interests on the RTA plan for the association.

"It's all finances," she said, about the lack of progress and voter approval of roadway projects, but she added that Magee needs to be improved to decrease potential for accidents.

It is very dangerous, she said.

Don Burtchin, one of the founders of the Northwest Traffic Coalition, lives at the cross streets of Shannon and Orange Grove Road, and he too agrees that Magee needs improvements.

Magee, La Cañada, Tangerine and Silverbell all are top on the priority list for Burtchin, he said. He added that the projected plan is "very useful."

"We are behind, growth occurred much more rapidly than was expected. This plan is an opportunity to catch up on the things that they intended to do, but couldn't."

And officials are hoping this time the plan will pass.

"To fail this chance again … I don't know when that next chance will be," Myers said.

Next week, the EXPLORER will take a look at the proposed transit improvement projects and what was left out of the RTA plan.

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