Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

For want of a little courage, our roads crumble

According to economists, the Great Recession ended in 2009. The numbers show a slow, steady improvement to the national economy since June of that year.

But that doesn’t mean the effects of the recession are over. They will be with us for years to come.

So will its costs. The massive downturn in the economy also devastated government, especially those that rely heavily on taxation of retail economic activity to provide the bulk of their operating funds, like Arizona and Tucson.

Anyone who drives a car (or rides a bike, for that matter) in metropolitan Tucson knows the roads suck. Budget cuts have forced Tucson and Pima County the past three years to eliminate annual road maintenance.

Those two governments were already behind the curve keeping up with annual maintenance – keeping a road surface in good condition to prevent water from infiltrating cracks and turning them into holes. Even our measly 12 inches of rain a year is enough water to turn a good road bad in just a few years if it’s not properly maintained.

But at least the county and city had the money to keep poor roads from failing. For the past three years all they’ve been able to afford is pothole filling. And without proper maintenance, the poor conditions of the roads exponentialized.

The Tucson Department of Transportation last week told the city council that 52 percent of city arterial roads are either in fair, poor or failed condition and a whopping 86 percent of neighborhood roads are in one of those three categories.

In January, county roads officials told the County Administrator that roughly 30 percent of county arterial roads are in poor or failed condition and about 60 percent of neighborhood roads are failing or failed.

The estimated cost to turn those sucky roads into good ones?

About $1.2 billion over 10 years.

And that’s not accounting for costs necessary to resume normal annual maintenance operations to prevent the cycle from repeating itself.

Neither the county nor the city has the money to pay for it. That means that either we all have to get used to driving on asphalt crumbs and paying for new tires and struts every couple of years, or we have to pay a tax to fix the roads.

The great tragedy is that all of this could have been avoided. The recession was truly a bear, devouring government treasuries with shocking speed. There is no question that spending had to be reduced. But craven state legislators refused to make difficult choices, including raising revenue to hold the line on critical spending such as educating children or maintaining transportation infrastructure vital for the economy.

Instead they resorted in part to theft, so-called fund sweeps of shared revenues the state normally returned to counties and cities but instead chose to keep more for itself the past three years to fund the state police and the department of motor vehicles (the fund sweeps started a decade ago but the state doubled down on them during the recession-caused budget crises).

Some of the 18-cents per gallon state gas tax we all pay is kept by the state to pay for state highways. The rest is sent back to the counties and towns where the taxes were collected so that the people paying the tax benefit from it.

Tucson and the county relied heavily on that shared tax to pay for streets maintenance. It made sense; a gas tax is a good way to pay for roads. The amount cut from the city and county the past three years totals more than $20 million. Since road maintenance is a lot cheaper, and lot more cost effective, than road reconstruction, that $20 million would have gone a long way toward preventing the roads from becoming as bad as they are.

And so both city and county leaders are pointing fingers at the state and blaming it for the cruddy condition of the metropolitan roads.

But some of the blame lies at their feet as well.

They also had hard decisions to make the past few years. They knew they had to either lay off cops and deputies (law enforcement accounts for the bulk of the city’s and county’s budget) or raise a tax if they wanted to replace the money the state stole for roads. They chose to do little of the first and none of the second.

Instead they let the roads crumble.

And now we all have to pay a lot for what would have cost only a little if our leaders had a little more courage when the times were tough.

[Ed. Note: I've had a couple of questions about this editorial offline suggesting counties and cities are barred from using general operating funds for roads. Not so. Those governments are barred from using state shared Highway User Revenue Funds for anything but roads, but local governments are free to augment those funds with local taxation. Most, if not all, choose not to. I'm suggesting they should in dire times in which the cost of doing nothing is far greater than the cost of doing something.]


Search site | Terms of service