How important are smooth streets and roads to Tucsonans?
"Every single neighborhood meeting, every single business meeting I go to, I hear about the roads," City Councilman Steve Kozachik said this week. "It's the single No. 1 important thing to this community, both in terms of quality of life and economic development, attracting businesses to come here."
Yet, Tucson's rough roads would be even worse if voters had not approved $100 million in borrowing, and the property tax increase to pay it back, in 2012.
Now, city officials are lauding early success of the five-year project, which is in its second year. It is ahead of schedule and under budget, allowing the city to add more mileage to what will get repaired and repaved, with the expansion decision likely coming in late April.
"I want to congratulate Daryl (Cole, city transportation director) on completing the first year of the streets bond ahead of schedule and under budget, resurfacing 241 lane-miles at a cost $11.7 million under budget," Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said at a recent news conference.
Rothschild attributed the success to lower-than-expected bids, conservative estimating by the city and low fuel prices.
Cole explained: "The price of oil has just gone down, and asphalt of course is (made from) oil, and the processing of asphalt ... is all done with diesel fuels."
The city has $40 million more than it thought it would have, Cole said, and the plan is to spend $37 million on major thoroughfares and $3 million on residential streets. He said the ratio is dictated by what the original borrowing plan was, 85 percent for major streets and 15 percent for residential.
City Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, standing along East Grant Road in her Ward 3, said she is happy about the success and wants more.
"There's no doubt that we can effectively apply the additional funds, which could be significant, to continue the program," Uhlich said. "We have a citizens' advisory group. We'll certainly want to hear from them. Voters indicated loud and clear that they want to make progress."
Uhlich said she hears from constituents who seem to recognize that the plan is working.
"I think they notice it on the roadways that are completed," she said. "The challenge is that there are many more linear miles to address like this than we initially thought we would be able to get to."
The success means Rothschild and other city officials want to seek voter approval to renew the borrowing so the road work can continue. Details on when it would go on the ballot and how much borrowing would be asked for have not been revealed.
Kozachik said he opposes extending the borrowing and payback with property taxes. He said he would prefer having it added to the anticipated request to voters to renew the Regional Transportation Authority road plan, which is financed with a county-wide half-cent sales tax.
"I would like to lay on the ballot in front of the voters, 'How would you voters like to see the RTA extended for another 20 years, but use a portion of those dollars that you're already paying to repair roads?'" Kozachik said.
The RTA plan dictates money go only to widening existing roads and building new ones, with no allocation for repairs and maintenance.
Kozachik said it would be better if 10 percent to 20 percent of the funding in the next RTA plan be dedicated to maintenance.