Originally Published: September 26, 2015 6 a.m.
Transportation affects all of us in nearly every way.
It plays into our lifestyles, health, families, jobs, education, housing, community, infrastructure, fiscal and financial systems, the economy, and the environment.
That's why Arizona Town Hall, an independent nonprofit membership organization, focused its 106th meeting this last April on the importance of transportation and how it can be improved in our state.
In order to share the results of their occasional three-day conferences, ATH collaborates with communities throughout Arizona to hold smaller, more focused discussions.
The review held at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's campus inPrescott on Tuesday, Sept. 22, featured several local and state public figures who were able to attend the conference and share their input on the issues surrounding transportation in our state.
"When we're talking about what improvements in transportation and expansion of our infrastructure can do for Arizona, we're really talking about what is the economic benefit and quality of life," said guest speaker at the event Floyd Roehrich, Deputy Director for Policy at the Arizona Department of Transportation.
From the economic benefit point of view, Arizona has more than a trillion dollar a year economy to the immediate west in Southern California, which is also Arizona's largest national trading partner, according to Roehrich. To the south is Mexico, Arizona's largest international trading partner. And not too far to the east is the Dallas/Houston area, where another trillion dollar a year economy exists.
In other words, Arizona is in the middle of some of the most significant commerce routes in the country. To keep up with the growing transportation trends, become more efficient, and to stay competitive in the interstate and international commerce markets, these routes not only need to be maintained, but need to be expanded, according to Roehrich.
There are many ideas on how to improve transportation conditions in Arizona. The problem is funding these ideas.
Roehrich explained that ADOT currently uses the large majority of its revenue to cover the cost of maintaining what already exists.
"About 70 percent of ADOT's revenue is spent preserving the existing system," Roehrich said. "We have an expansive state that has grown more than 25 percent in lane miles since the early 1990s and the population has more than doubled since that time. It's a system that has been growing and expanding, but aging."
As pointed out by guest speaker Mike Ellegood, senior consultant for e + e consultants and who spent most of his career as a transportation official within Arizona, it is the rural areas of the state, such as Yavapai County, that are suffering the most from this lack of resources.
"The valley is doing just fine," Ellegood said. "The valley has a huge tax base down there. Their half-cent [transportation excise] sales tax generates lots and lots of revenue, so they can build roads. Rural Arizona is an entirely different situation. Even though we have that half-cent [transportation excise] sales tax up here, it doesn't generate enough revenue to really do enough good, so we're really dependent on ADOT as our partner for transportation funding; but ADOT doesn't have the resources," Ellegood said.
Maricopa and Pima have also been able to pass separate tax increases that allow them to fund some of their expansion, according to Roehrich.
The major suggestion on how to begin reasonably increasing transit system funding that were brought up during the Prescott meeting was to increase user fees. This can be done by installing tollbooths throughout the state; charging motorists for the number of miles traveled; creating a new fee for alternative-fuel vehicles; increasing vehicle registration fees; and most prevalently, increasing the state's gas tax.
"For the anti-tax folks, I get it, you don't want to pay more at the pump; but our gas tax hasn't been raised since 1993," Ellegood said.
Ellegood is correct. Arizona's state tax on standard fuel at the pump is currently at 18 cents per gallon, and hasn't been touched since 1993. The national average state gas tax is 20.77 cents, according to the American Petroleum Institute. This money is ideally designed to improve road and transit systems throughout the state. However, many states (including Arizona) have been known to allot portions of the funds intended for roads to debt service and spending unrelated to transportation.
"The Band Aid, as we all know, is the gas tax," said Yavapai County Board of Supervisors member Thomas Thurman, who is also chairman of the State-Rural Transportation Advocacy Council. "We're decades behind on that. Utah, which is very conservative, just increased their gas tax."
So far, seven states - Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah and Washington - have increased their gas taxes in 2015 alone, and two more-Kentucky and North Carolina-have altered the structure of their taxes in order to limit decreasing revenues, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"This legislature, however, will not do it," Thurman said. "We have to go to the voter. But first, we have to stop the raids, because the voter will not approve our gas tax as long as the legislature is sweeping from the existing gas tax."
On a local level, one thing that Yvonne Bartlett, Interim Executive Director for United Way of Yavapai County, believes Yavapai County should do is focus on the resources we have and can influence more easily than potentially waste all of our energy fighting the state as a whole.
"I think it's really important that we look to other resources," Bartlett said. "Not just following the same policies and procedures that we've been talking about for decades that haven't worked, that's just the definition of insanity."
One way that we can help ourselves is through collaboration with the Central Yavapai Metropolitan Planning Organization (CYMPO), said Dee Skipton, Career Services Supervisor of the Goodwill Career Center.
The Central Yavapai Metropolitan Planning Organization, a partnership of Chino Valley, City of Prescott, Dewey-Humboldt, Prescott Valley, Yavapai County and the Arizona Department of Transportation, was established in June 2003 by federal mandate when the region achieved a population of 50,000. Its purpose is to cooperatively plan the transportation future of the Central Yavapai region.
"I know that CYMPO has been getting a certain amount of money every year - I want to say about $1 million - and they've been sending that back because we don't have a transit plan in place," Skipton.
To help develop this plan, several area leaders, including Skipton, Bartlett, and transportation planner with CYMPO Vincent Gallegos have been meeting regularly to brainstorm.
"The bottom line is, we do have a good core of people in our community who are saying 'okay, we're going on decades where we're stuck with this barrier of public transportation' and as Dee referred to earlier, CYMPO did receive $1.2 million for public transportation in the Prescott and Prescott Valley area and we did return that money," Gallegos said.
One of the biggest reasons the money was returned was because CYMPO is required to match this money with its own financial backing, according to Gallegos. Before that can be considered, however, a solid plan must be created.
"In a relatively short amount of time, we've made incredible progress, and as we continue to make that progress, we continue to talk about it," Gallegos said. "So I would say stay tuned."