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RTA may offer loans for road projects

Citizen Staff Writer



The Regional Transportation Authority is considering offering loans to towns, cities and tribes to get road projects started – and finished – faster.

The money would come from a $120 million cash surplus and could be used for RTA and non-RTA projects, some of which stall for years while federal and state money trickles in.

“As long as we set the rules so that the RTA projects would not be delayed because of this, I think everyone would be in favor of it,” said Oro Valley Mayor Paul Loomis, an RTA board member.

The loans could be used to accelerate local projects, such as a planned widening of Lambert Lane in Oro Valley, that rely on multiple years of federal or state funding, Loomis said.

“The help loan process allows us to borrow that money upfront and complete the projects,” he said.

The RTA program would be similar to the state Highway Expansion and Extension Loan Program, which has lent $542 million to municipal governments since its inception in 1999, said Jim DeGrood, the RTA transportation services director.

The loans would keep money in the community, because municipalities now pay interest to institutions outside southern Arizona, DeGrood said.

“Why shouldn’t we be investing in ourselves?” he said.

Such a program might also help cities come up with matching funds required for RTA projects, said RTA Finance Director Robert Samuelson.

Getting projects under way sooner would also boost the local economy, Samuelson said.

“Our feeling was that it would be our own little stimulus package,” he said.

There are hurdles to leap before such a program could start. The RTA is not a bank, so internal rule changes would be needed. Collateral would be a problem, Samuelson said.

“You can’t really collateralize a road. How do you repossess a road?” he said.

The program would likely be short-lived, because by 2011 the cash surplus is expected to be depleted by larger projects that will start ramping up this year, DeGrood said.

The RTA is in good shape financially, though it is a mixed bag, Samuelson said.

Interest income is down because rates on investments have fallen, but the RTA has more money than expected in the bank earning interest. Sales taxes are down, but contractors are asking less for construction jobs, he said.

Revenue in 2008 was off 6 percent from 2007, Samuelson said.

The RTA has not projected revenues for the coming year, because University of Arizona economic forecaster Marshall Vest, who advises the authority, suggested waiting until the economy bottoms out, Samuelson said.

“It’s just so dynamic. We don’t know where the bottom is,” he said.

Ultimately the goal of the loans would be to grease the skids on RTA road projects.

“We have money, and we have projects. We just need to get them out,” Samuelson said.

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