By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror
PHOENIX — An audit of Pima County’s Regional Transportation Authority Plan found it falls short by $149 million, putting 11 projects at risk.
The plan was enacted in 2006, after voters passed a one half cent sales tax dedicated to a spate of projects to improve roads and public transit. Initially, costs were estimated to be around $2.4 billion, but those have grown to $2.9 billion and remaining sales tax revenues — which end in 2026 — and other regional funds fail to completely cover the gap.
The examination of the RTA’s progress by the Arizona Auditor General’s Office notes that costs were increased beyond initial estimates by inflation, project revisions and unexpected conflicts. One project in Marana added lanes, wildlife underpasses and protective fencing. Another in Tucson dealt with extra costs and time due to relocating utilities that were not previously accounted for.
Construction costs have also contributed to greater expenses. Construction estimation consultancy group Rider Levett Bucknall reported that the national construction cost index ballooned 26% from 2016 to 2021 alone.
A letter of response from the RTA also pointed out that the Great Recession resulted in lower than anticipated sales tax revenues.
Projects that exceed the original planned amounts are the responsibility of local jurisdictions to resolve. The RTA is currently in talks with these jurisdictions to determine what the next steps should be. Options include a future sales tax extension, reducing the scope of future projects or delaying them for a later date — a strategy which the RTA has stated it’s averse to.
Despite the looming complications, the RTA has successfully completed or started 45 of the 51 planned projects of June 2021, when the audit was performed. The majority of those remaining are scheduled to be started within the timeframe established by voters. Projects include everything from widening roads, building under- and overpasses, expanding transit service routes, and adding a modern streetcar.
Pandemic disruptions make it tough to determine successes
The funding was largely approved by voters interested in mitigating growing congestion in Pima County as the region experienced a spike in population. The audit found performance on this front had mixed results. Miles traveled per capita in the county decreased from 22.5 in 2016 to 20.2 in 2019. Similarly, hours spent in traffic delays fell from 50 per commuter in 2019 to just 21 in 2020, though it’s possible the latter may be the result of reduced driving during the pandemic.
In contrast with positive effects on driving time, the total minutes of travel time to work increased from 24.4 minutes in 2016 to just over 25 minutes in 2019. This increase was greater than five counties in other states used for comparison, but the rate at which it increased was lower than most of them.
Funding allocated to local public transit was also intended to help relieve congestion and increase citizen mobility options. While it performed reliably, with SunTran buses arriving on time 92% of the time, public transit in Pima County was also impacted by COVID-19, negating its effect on overall congestion.
Ridership plummeted by 34% from 2017 to 2021, and SunTran responded by implementing a fare-free policy, which contributed to increased operating costs. But those operating costs are still lower than those of six other public transit programs in the country SunTran was compared to, at $4.07 per boarding compared to the average of $7.03.
The plan seeks to improve roadways with the goal of increasing safety for all residents, both drivers and pedestrians. Data on the success of this goal also presented a mixed picture. Across Pima County, crashes decreased by 24% between 2016 and 2020, but the rate of roadway deaths increased by 53% per one million vehicle miles over the same period.
Much of this has to do with driver impairment, speeding and insufficient visibility measures taken by bicyclists during night time hours. While these aren’t behaviors the RTA can control, the authority is working to increase roadway condition safety through education campaigns, shortened crosswalks, and separated bike lanes, among other things.
Sjoberg Evashenk Consulting, which was hired by the auditor general to compile the report, recommended that the RTA increase its data reporting practices to better analyze the gap in funding, and continue to work with local jurisdictions to close the gap. The RTA responded that it would follow all recommendations, and that it expected its current track record of successful project implementations to help in any future petitions to the voters for funding increases.
“With the RTA’s record of keeping our promises, it is anticipated that the voters will once again embrace future investments in our regional mobility and accessibility to enhance the performance of the region’s transportation infrastructure,” RTA wrote in its response letter.
Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.