It’s about to get a lot harder for Tucson-area bicycle and pedestrian planners to find funding for projects after a decision by the Regional Transportation Authority slashed more than $14 million from the RTA’s bicycle and pedestrian budgets.
Pima Association of Governments deputy director Jim Degrood told the RTA’s bicycle and pedestrian subcommittee that revenue from the 2006 voter-approved half-cent sales tax was coming in 17 percent lower than the group expected.
“The economy tanked — as we all know,” Degrood told the committee. “And that has had a profoundly negative impact on our collection.”
He said at the outset of the plan they expected to collect $2.1 billion in taxes, but now believes the total will be about 17 percent lower and will result in only $1.7 billion in taxes collected over the 20-year life of the plan.
Degrood told the committee that even though there is a shortfall, the regional governments have committed to making up the funding gap for “named projects.”
Named projects are largely roadway widening projects and were featured in the ballot initiative as specific improvement projects. The modern streetcar was a major named project as was the Grant Road and Broadway Boulevard widening projects.
The so-called categorical projects did not fair as well. Categorical projects were not specifically named in the 2006 RTA ballot initiative, but fall into one of eight categories including the Greenways, Pathways, Bikeways and Sidewalks category as well as the Elderly and Pedestrian Safety category, which funded a large portion of recent bicycle and pedestrian improvement projects in the region.
Each category was allotted a certain percentage of the overall taxes collected. For example: the Greenways, Pathways, Bikeways and Sidewalks category was allotted three percent or $60 million of the expected $2.1 billion over the 20-year plan.
Because of the lower-than-expected sales tax revenue, the RTA board decided to reduce the amount the category would receive from $60 million to $49.8 million. Likewise, the Elderly and Pedestrian Safety category sees a reduction from $20 million to $16.6 million.
The other six categories are also seeing 17 percent reductions.
Tucson bicycle and pedestrian program manager Ann Chanecka said it’s an issue because the RTA is one of the only stable funding sources for the region.
“I’m concerned about future of bike-ped funding,” Chanecka said. “The sources of funding we have used in the past are going away.”
In recent years federal bicycle and pedestrian funding had been reduced from about $6 million to about $1 million and now the RTA funding is also being reduced.
“It is definitely concerning that we are running out of funding,” Chanecka said.
Bob Cook is a member of the RTA’s Citizen Accountability for Regional Transportation committee and is concerned that the CART committee wasn’t consulted on the decision and that the RTA has decided to slash the categorical funding, which includes most of the alternative transportation projects while committing to fund road widening projects at their full level.
“I think that should be absolutely reversed,” Cook said. “It’s economically ruinous to continue to widen roads.”
Cook said there is growing evidence that the way people move is shifting dramatically and widening roads isn’t the answer.
He points to recent United States Public Interests Research Group report which suggests the “driving boom is over.”
Here’s a snippet from the report:
Americans drive fewer total miles today than we did eight years ago, and fewer per person than we did at the end of Bill Clinton’s first term. The unique combina- tion of conditions that fueled the Driving Boom—from cheap gas prices to the rapid expansion of the workforce during the Baby Boom generation—no longer exists. Meanwhile, a new generation—the Mil- lennials—is demanding a new American Dream less dependent on driving.
Transportation policy in the United States, however, remains stuck in the past. Official forecasts of future vehicle travel continue to assume steady increases in driving, despite the experience of the past decade. Those forecasts are used to justify spending vast sums on new and expanded highways, even as existing roads and bridges are neglected. Elements of a more balanced transportation system—from transit systems to bike lanes—lack crucial investment as powerful interests battle to maintain their piece of a shrinking trans- portation funding pie.
The time has come for America to hit the “reset” button on transportation policy—replacing the policy infrastructure of the Driving Boom years with a more efficient, flexible and nimble system that is better able to meet the transportation needs of the 21st century.
“We need to fully fund the alternative modes,” Cook said. “We have dealt with our mobility needs using a suburban model and it is time to reverse that. We should be supporting urbanization.”
Degrood said there are other data sources like the American Community Survey that suggests there are more single occupancy vehicles on the road than ever before, but more importantly, Degrood said he is committed to delivering what was promised to the voters in 2006. He is especially sensitive to delivering what was promised as the RTA begins to look into reauthorizing the sales tax for another 20 years.
“Right now what we have is a plan promised to the voters,” he said. “We heard from voters: ‘You better deliver what you promised because we are tired of hearing that the plan changed.'”
He said it is important to remember that even the named roadway projects include multi-modal elements like bike lanes.
“We are making the best out of bad economy and we are trying to do it with integrity and a balance of modes in mind,” Degrood said.
Cook said it is a shame that the RTA is “fully funding the one thing that is more obsolete and cutting funding to the thing that is becoming more relevant.”