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Preserving Our Future

Posted on: May 6, 2023

As roads deteriorate, how will Pinal County solve its transportation tax conundrum?

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Arizona Republic Traffic Article from reporter Sasha Hupka

Every weekday morning, nearly 60% of Pinal County's commuters pilgrimage across county lines.

Nearly three-quarters of working residents there hold jobs in neighboring Maricopa County, according to data from the Maricopa Association of Governments.

But many of those who make the daily drive must contend with unrelenting, bumper-to-bumper traffic.

The county and its commuters are in a conundrum. Officials say new roads are desperately needed, particularly in the fast-growing eastern half of the county, but a half-cent sales tax that would have funded them failed in November.

"That whole corridor — if you just drew a circle from (State Route) 24 around to (State Route) 347, where Maricopa goes back into Maricopa County — that's all the growth," said Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland, who chairs the board of the Pinal Regional Transportation Authority. "Those (areas) are where all the industry is."

Meanwhile, the county's current roadways are in rough shape. A tax that helps maintain the county's existing 2,000 miles of roads will expire in 2026, and officials will ask voters next election cycle to continue it.

If it doesn't pass, they'll need to try again for maintenance funds during the next general election cycle — and if that fails, county officials will have bigger problems than trying to build new arteries for commuters.

"I think if residents aren't happy with the condition of the roads today, they're going to be extremely unhappy five years from now if we don't have the ability to maintain them," said Celeste Garza, assistant county engineer for Pinal County's public works department.

Where does road funding come from?

Pinal County has two ways of funding its roads: a statewide fund and a county sales tax.

The Highway User Revenue Fund, or HURF, collects money from gas and vehicle license taxes and distributes revenues to Arizona's state highway system, cities and counties. It's designed to help governments maintain their roads, but it's been fixed at 18 cents per gallon for decades, and county officials say it hasn't kept pace with inflation and increases in the cost of roadwork.

The majority of the HURF funding received by Pinal County goes toward overhead costs, such as equipment to help maintain roads, officials said.

Pinal County's cities also get a cut of the revenue fund and maintenance tax money, which they use to maintain their own streets. The state uses its cut of HURF money and other funding to support its roads and highways, and the two interstate highways in Pinal County, I-10 and I-8, are largely financed by the federal government.

Property taxes fund government operations in Pinal County, but not roads, officials said. Instead, the county's existing half-cent sales tax helps make up for what the revenue fund doesn't cover.

It's something of a "pothole type of tax," said Joe Ortiz, deputy director of Pinal County's Public Works Department. The county's voters first approved it in 1986 and most recently extended it in 2005, giving it legs until the end of 2026.

But even with that money, the county falls short of keeping its roads in pristine condition. On average, Pinal County roads get a C- or D rating for pavement conditions, officials said, meaning that the asphalt has begun to break down and must be preserved to avoid totally reconstructing the road.

"That is not good," Ortiz said. "Our reports are telling us that we need to spend $13 million a year just to maintain that status quo. That's the part that's tough — because then you take a look at the revenue generated off this excise tax. ... We're not at the end of the fiscal year, but we're looking closer to about $16 or $17 million."

Will the county get new roads?

Last year, Pinal County voters narrowly rejected Proposition 469, which would have imposed a half-cent sales tax to fund new roadways and transit options.

The transportation plan put together by the Pinal Regional Transportation Authority called for 13 roadway projects, allocations for local road projects in four communities, dial-a-ride services and park-and-ride lots. It included the construction of a 21-mile east-west corridor from Maricopa to Casa Grande and a 55-mile north-south corridor from Apache Junction to Eloy.

The plan — and the tax — had previously been passed by voters in 2017. But the version of the levy that voters initially approved created two taxation tiers: A one-half percent sales tax on the first $10,000 of any transaction and a zero percent sales tax on any portion over $10,000. The Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank based in Phoenix, challenged the tax as unconstitutional. It was ultimately struck down by the Arizona Supreme Court.

Proposition 469, the retooled version of the tax, failed by just a few thousand votes.

The ballot was big, McFarland said, and voters were weary of politics. High inflation and rising costs didn't help, either. But ultimately, voters rejected the proposition because they didn't see the benefits of the roadways proposed in and near their communities, he said.

"My citizens, they voted against it because all they saw was half of the money was going to this north-south freeway that did nothing for Casa Grande," he said. "People aren't stupid. They'll figure it out."

Now, he and others leading the Pinal Regional Transportation Authority need to quickly figure out how to redesign the plan and get voters on board before 2025. McFarland said the new strategy is to create a cohesive regional transportation network, rather than trying to patchwork projects together to get individual communities on board.

"I think the voters want a good transportation system," McFarland said. "But I think we need to do a better job of designing a real plan like the Valley has, like the 101 and the 202 and the 303. And I think people will understand that — they know what the 101 is, they know what the 202 is, and I think they appreciate them."

Officials: Unmaintained roads just get worse

Part of the challenge of getting money for maintenance and new roads passed by voters is a countywide lack of knowledge about how roads are funded, officials said.

Most voters don't realize that property taxes don't fund their roads, they said, and not everyone understands the difference between the proposed half-cent tax for new construction and the existing half-cent pothole tax.

And, the timing of the maintenance tax expiration means officials will either need to put the taxes on the same ballot or ask voters to approve them in two consecutive elections.

"There's always a concern any time you have to go to the voters to get a tax passed," McFarland said. "It's never easy."

Currently, officials said the plan is to put the tax approvals on two separate ballots. That means Pinal County voters won't get a crack at approving new roadway plans and funds until at least 2025. If voters don't sign on, McFarland said it'll take at least another two years to get a new plan ready and a new tax on the ballot amid worsening traffic.

Meanwhile, county officials will try to continue the half-cent road maintenance tax on the 2024 ballot. If it fails, they'll have the option of reintroducing it in 2026.

When that tax first passed, Pinal County had mostly dirt and gravel roads, officials said. Over the three decades since, that balance has shifted. With paving projects spurred by urbanization and air quality concerns, the county now has about 1,500 miles of paved roads and 500 miles of dirt streets.

Pinal County Public Works Director Andrew Smith said that if the tax expires he fears the trend could reverse, with paved roads reverting to dirt for lack of maintenance money.

The cost of restoring roads only increases as time passes, creating an even more financially daunting situation.

"Say it just doesn't pass," Ortiz said. "Finally, the residents come around and say, 'Okay, yeah, the roads are crap. We need or should have passed this.' Now you're really in a quandary, because those roads that we should have been keeping up for that year, now instead of costing $55,000 per mile, you're talking about $1 million per mile. ... I don't know if we'll be able to patch it up at that point."

Sasha Hupka is a watchdog reporter covering Maricopa County, Pinal County and regional issues for The Arizona Republic. Do you have a tip? Reach her at sasha.hupka@arizonarepublic.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SashaHupka.

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