/ Modified feb 23, 2024 11:55 a.m.

The Buzz: What happens when Washington comes to town?

The Buzz rides along as a federal advisor goes on a tour with city officials.

Tom Perez in Tucson White House Senior Advisor Tom Perez at a news conference with Tucson Mayor Regina Romero. February 20, 2024
Christopher Conover, AZPM
The Buzz

The Buzz for February 23, 2024

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On Tuesday, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero held a press conference at the opening of a new neighborhood park in the city's south side. The project is among several that have been paid for with funds from large federal spending bills.

The attendees included local organizers, the area's city council member Lane Santa Cruz, and a federal official, Tom Perez.

Perez is Director of the White House's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, and was in the area for an hour-long tour of projects that have been funded in part with federal dollars.

So what goes on when officials comes to town? The Buzz was invited to tag along for the tour.

The day started when Perez showed up at city hall, being greeted by the mayor before hopping on one of the new electric buses that have been paid for through recent federal grants.

"We purchased these buses with $21 million from the Federal Transit Administration through the Inflation Reduction Act. So it was an opportunity that we applied for. The City of Tucson was ready because we created our climate action and adaptation plan. It's called Tucson Resilient Together. So one of our commitments is to be zero emissions by 2030 internally as a city, and by 2025, all of our bus fleet will be low-to- zero emission fleet by 2025," Romero told Perez as they took their seats.

As the tour commenced, Romero touted the city's Million Trees Initiative, that program includes money and work from federal, city and private stakeholders.

"If you don't have a partner, you can't scale it. And if you can't scale it, we're gonna be here until the cows come home," Perez said.

Efforts such as the tree-planting initiative and others have been largely focused on areas that have been historically disadvantaged and not invested in, Romero told Perez. That applies to the project that was the first stop on the tour, a neighborhood that is at the base of the 22nd Street Bridge.

Rebuilding the bridge has been talked about for years. It has structural issues that limit the size of vehicles that can travel on it.

"School buses cannot ride it, trucks cannot ride it, emergency vehicles cannot drive on it because it is so dangerous of failure. That what happens with some term buses and school buses and emergency vehicles, and fire trucks and commercial trucks, they have to go through the neighborhood on the other side of the neighborhood," said Romero.

That long-discussed rebuild will happen, due in part to a recent federal grant.

"Low income neighborhoods and communities of color are the first and worst hit by climate and the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and emissions from these huge vehicles, they're going through the neighborhood and leaving their emissions there."

Perez said fixing issues that affect such neighborhoods has been a priority for the Biden administration, including in Perez's hometown.

"I grew up in Buffalo, New York, and in the 1960s, they built an expressway, so that, quite frankly, the white people from the suburbs could get to downtown a lot faster, he said. "What community did they completely dissect? It was the black community in the east side of Buffalo."

The next stop on Perez's tour was a spot aiming to correct an issue that affects all Tucsonans, a recently-built water treatment facility that deals with contaminants such as PFAS and 1, 4 dioxane.

"We started finding PFAS in our water system about five, six years ago, and to some water through mayor and council action, we said, 'no, we will pick up the remediation costs knowing that we were not causing that contamination in our system, right?'" said Romero. "That's a Department of Defense problem with DM, Davis Monthan. And the Air National Guard that is at Tucson Airport. But the City of Tucson has picked up about $50 million in remediation, because we want to make sure that Tucsonans feel that our water is safe to drink."

"Tucson has been ahead of the curve on a host of things," said Perez. "PFAS is one, we're gonna go see the tree planting, and they're way ahead of other communities in understanding the opportunities and, you know, they were one of the first cities that applied for and got the buses that were under the IRA and I mean, the the science has become compelling on this. We don't need to sit here and debate whether you want to have PFAS in your drinking water."

The final location in the tour was the new neighborhood park where this story started.

"This would be another sin of the freeway," said Tucson City Council member Lane Santa Cruz, who represents the area. "When they fill, the culvert boxes, when it rains in the flooding, they weren't big enough. So when it rains, the water can flow to the river. So it backs up into the neighborhood."

The park helps ease some of that, creating a natural space with trees that will be watered by those rain events, soaking up excess. She said it also gives the neighbors a spot to recreate.

A couple of days after the event, Mayor Romero said she thought the tour went well, and that Perez will be able to bring back needed information to the president.

"I believe that President Biden wants to make sure that his advisors and his team of secretaries of all of the departments in the federal government are seeing firsthand the impact of how the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act is working for people," she said.

Romero said such events are a great way to showcase that Tucson is in line with national goals, which helps ensure that it is front-of-mind for federal officials when it comes to federal dollars.

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