Voters in Pinal County will decide in November if they want to raise $951 million in taxes for road projects that are supposed to ease the growing menace of congestion.
Yet backers of the ballot measure, called Proposition 400, fear it still won’t be enough to prevent gridlock from strangling the nation’s sixth-fastest growing county.
"We’re all very concerned that the growth rate will outpace us," said Ken Buchanan, who oversees the county’s development services department.
Transportation — and the lack of it — has become a top issue since unincorporated subdivisions such as Johnson Ranch and Gold Canyon or cities such as Maricopa have been overwhelmed by urbanstyle traffic jams in areas still dominated by farms and open desert.
Proposition 400 would renew a 20-year tax voters approved in 1986 for transportation projects.
The county plans to use the projected $951 million from Proposition 400 to improve or build 384 miles of roads. But the plan doesn’t have many details — such as in what order they’ll do the projects or how much of an improvement drivers should expect. The work includes paving dirt roads, building new roads, repaving and widening.
The vague planning is because of a state law that governs how rural counties can collect this kind of tax. The state will divide the money among the county and incorporated communities based on population. Those governments then decide which projects to take on.
Because nobody can predict how much each community will grow, nobody can predict how much money each community should expect in any given year, said David Snider, a supervisor in the county’s District 3. Roughly 1 million people are expected to move to Pinal County in the next two decades.
"We don’t think it’s vague," Snider said. "It’s flexible."
That’s a huge departure from a similar transportation tax Maricopa County voters approved in 2004, also called Proposition 400. Maricopa County developed highly specific plans for the money because Arizona law requires larger counties to commit money to defined, regional projects.
But Pinal County officials fear some parallels between the two counties. Some fear Pinal will repeat Maricopa County’s failure to build enough freeways during rapid growth.
Maricopa County built almost no freeways during the 1960s, ’70s and much of the ’80s, which left Phoenix with the nation’s smallest freeway system among cities of its size. Maricopa County is still playing catch-up.
"We don’t want to go down the same path," Buchanan said. "We’re trying to learn from that."
Buchanan and others said they’ll look for other ways to pay for roads in the coming years.
One possible source is impact fees on new homes, which could happen next year.
Also, they’re hoping to get help from the Arizona Department of Transportation, which is studying potential freeway corridors. ADOT is set to adopt those corridors Tuesday, though it could take years to figure out who will pay for the roads and decades to build them.
Another complication is that Pinal County officials would like to lower taxes, Snider said.
"The county Board of Supervisors in Pinal is very, very mindful of the fact we have one of the higher rates in the state and that’s not a comfortable place to be," Snider said.
The current transportation tax will expire in 2006 and fall short of its goal. The county projected it would raise $125 million to $200 million, but it’s only raised $83 million so far. Buchanan still considers it a success, saying it helped places such as Apache Junction, transforming miles of dirt roads to paved streets. In all, the tax paved 361 miles.
Proposition 400 doesn’t have organized opposition. It’s being promoted by a committee that’s spending about $250,000 on advertising and mailings. Committee member Jimmy Kerr acknowledged the tax "probably won’t" build enough roads. But Kerr, who spent 40 years in elected offices including as Casa Grande mayor, said it’s a start to dealing with growth.
"If we don’t get the halfcent sales tax, we’re going to be even further behind," Kerr said.