On May 16, 2006, Pima County voters approved the Regional Transportation Authority's (RTA) 20-year, $2.1 billion regional transportation plan. The package included language to develop a regional transit system. For nearly a year and a half the Authority has met with City of Tucson staffers to transfer responsibility of the transit system to the RTA. Now that plan has hit a road bump.
Tony Pancho starts his days early at the Laos transit center on the city's southside. At last count bus riders made over 21 million trips a year on Sun Tran, and, in spite of Tucson's auto dependent culture, many have no other means of transportation.
“I depend on it very much, it’s like my life,” says Pancho. “That’s the only way for me to get from point A to point B”
Pancho's route will take him from one end of the city to another, as he looks for work and seeks to upgrade his skills.
“I’ve just been trying to look for a job and trying to get some extra skills, learning how to go about getting interviewed and getting my GED and working on it. That’s basically what I’m trying to do is be a productive member of society,” says Pancho.
Bus riders have long complained about the spotty transit system that doesn't reach everywhere they want to go and has limited routes on nights and weekends. But the situation did improve when the Regional Transportation Authority began spending the 38 million dollars committed to expand service. Beginning in early 2007, the transit system began offering late night and weekend service and increasing frequency of buses on heavily traveled routes. RTA Executive director Gary Hayes calls those investments substantial.
“We’ve added to some 92,000 hours of service based on the RTA investment,” Hayes explains. “That’s only going to improve if we’re managing the system because we’re going to look at constantly expanding and enhancing the service and the system.”
That looks less likely now. For the last 18 months the RTA has worked with the city of Tucson to develop a plan to have the RTA assume responsibility for the operation of city transit systems. In June 2010 the two entities failed to reach mutual agreement. Although accepting the goal of developing a regional transit system, city councilwoman Regina Romero, says the offer just wasn't good enough.
“We received a memorandum of understanding that to my belief, it wasn’t acceptable, wasn’t dealing with the issues that I feel are very important to be able to get to a place where we feel comfortable,” says Romero.
Romero worries that under RTA management, low income riders would not receive the discounts they do under the current structure. Brian Flagg, who ministers to the poor at Casa Maria in the City of South Tucson, shares that concern.
“Right now the city is talking about giving the bus system to the RTA who doesn’t have a plan for low income fares that they now have,” says Flagg. “That’s unacceptable. And it’s really a slap in the face of econonic development for the people of our town, becausez a lot of people use the bus.”
Hayes says any decisions made will accommodate low income riders, based on the makeup of the nine member RTA board.
“Certainly the City of South Tucson, Tucson, Pima County, the Pascua Yaqui Ttribe, the Tohono O’odham Nation, they have constituents that obviously need transit services,” Hayes explains. “So if you’ve got a board membership where the majority is representing a consitutency that would ride it, you’re going to get a sensitivity in all the decisions they’re going to make.”
The other sticking point, according to Romero, concerns city assets and investment, and what will happen to those. She points to the substantial investment the city of Tucson has made in the system, adding that the RTA had offered nothing for their aquisition. And, she says, if the city should relinquish it's responsibility for the transit system, it should have a seat at the table.
“If the City of Tucson is goinging to continue to invest 32 million dollars in the system, then the City of Tucson should have veto authority, and say wait, we’re investing money,” Romero says. “We should have veto authority from the RTA board if we think that that the citizens of Tucson are not being served well.”
While the debate swirls in the towers of power, on the streets, people like Tony Pancho continue to move forward.
“I lived a crazy life,” says Pancho. “ I don’t want to go back to that life, and live the sober life, just move on and help others because just like me, knowing everybody needs a push now and then, going the right direction. And they don’t have to stay where they are.”
For now the discussions have stalled. Yet some facts deserve consideration. More than 90 percent of the Sun Tran ridership occurs within the city of Tucson, but the future expansion of the system is expected to extend to outlying areas. Budget restraints could cripple expansion of the system if the City of Tucson maintains control. And, looking afield, rarely can a single municipality fund its transit system by itself. And on we go.