Understanding transportation spending in Pima County - Tucson Local Media: Columns

Understanding transportation spending in Pima County

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Chuck Huckelberry

Posted: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 4:00 am

At a recent Board of Supervisors public hearing on the county budget a gentleman addressed the board and wanted to know why the county was spending only $5 million a year on transportation.

I wish it weren’t so, but there are unfortunately a lot of people in the county who misunderstand our annual transportation spending.

Our transportation budget, in fact, is about $57 million a year and of that, about $15 million is spent on roads maintenance – filling potholes, sealing cracks, chip sealing, and the like.

About 30 percent of that maintenance spending is in District 1, which includes all of the Foothills, Oro Valley, Casas Adobes and the eastern half of Marana. Another 30 percent is spent in District 3, which takes in most of the western parts of the county but also includes the western half of Marana. Not too surprisingly, Districts 1 and 3 combined have 61 percent of the unincorporated the county’s roads. 

It’s important to note that the county is only responsible for maintaining the roads in the unincorporated county. The municipalities of Tucson, South Tucson, Oro Valley, Marana and Sahuarita, and the Tohono O’odham Nation are responsible for the maintenance of their roads. 

Why isn’t more of that $57 million spent on fixing bad roads? Because a lot of that money is spoken for. In 1997, Pima County voters approved borrowing $350 million against a portion of the state gas tax money the county receives annually to expand and build new roads (the majority of which have been built in District 1). 

A little less than a third of the county’s annual gas tax revenue is used to pay off the transportation bonds. 

The county transportation budget also pays for public transit services, fleet maintenance, road engineering, road worker salaries and other expenses.

We spend every dime we can to fix our roads.

The county must rely on the state to provide it adequate roads funding, but the state hasn’t raised the gas tax since George W. Bush’s father was president.

In the 23 years since, the county’s maintenance funds have dwindled thanks to sweeps of those funds by the Legislature, reduced fuel consumption generating less gas tax revenue and lost purchasing power due to inflation.

We now have a $300 million roads maintenance deficit. Numerous counties, including Pima, have asked the Legislature to raise the gas tax but the request so far has been ignored.

I believe transportation systems are best paid for with user fees – gas taxes and licensing fees. But there is not enough of that money to solve our problem. The county’s General Fund pays for general services that benefit all county residents, including those living in municipalities, such as the county’s parks and courts. To use General Fund money for roads would mean cutting many critical county services. It’s also unfair for the nearly 60 percent of county residents who live in municipalities to use the county taxes they pay only on roads in the unincorporated county.

So where will the money come from to fix our roads? That’s a good question. 

There may come a time in the near future where the county’s voters will have to decide to take matters into their own hands and raise the money needed to fix our roads.

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