As a preliminary step toward confronting Arizona’s serious — and growing — gap in highway construction funding, the state Legislature last year provided $307 million in general tax dollars to accelerate freeway building. But the money came with a catch, as lawmakers said they wanted most of this “extra” money spent in Arizona’s population centers of Maricopa and Pima counties.
Normally, the Arizona Department of Transportation and the State Transportation Board decide how to dole out federal dollars and state revenues that come from gasoline taxes and vehicle license fees. As Capitol Media Services reported Tuesday, the State Transportation Board relies on a formula that spends 37 percent in Maricopa County, 13 in Pima, and the other half in Arizona’s other 13 counties.
But in 2006, the Legislature created a special fund called Statewide Transportation Acceleration Needs, or STAN, to hold the $307 million and required 60 percent to be spent in Maricopa and 16 percent in Pima, leaving only 24 percent for the rest of the state. Clearly, this overruled the State Transportation Board and tilted the money away from more rural areas. But the complaints were relatively quiet as the Legislature was providing desperately needed additional funds and most people recognize the greatest needs are with the fastest growing urban areas.
The story is different this year, as overall tax revenues are climbing more slowly than in the recent past. The Senate is still looking at putting another $62 million into STAN, but the money would be diverted from funds already controlled by the State Transportation Board. So, rural counties could watch some of the funds they normally would receive go to Maricopa and Pima instead.
This plan has an important element for the East Valley, as Queen Creek could apply for up to $10 million to start engineering designs for wider streets and parkways to ease congestion created by commuters from northern Pinal County. Queen Creek had asked for up to $100 million, but even the smaller amount would allow the town to begin working with Maricopa and Pinal counties on projects that otherwise might have to wait five years or more.
Capitol Media Services reported that some senators see the new diversion into STAN as a necessary trade off for supporting Gov. Janet Napolitano’s strategy of extending highway bond repayment from 20 to 30 years. The extension would raise the final cost of such debt, but would make up to $500 million available to ADOT in the next state budget.
Generally, budget horse-trading should be frowned upon by responsible lawmakers as it inevitably drives up the final bill for taxpayers. But Arizona faces a highway construction crisis with few good solutions, so we should be willing to pay the price of legislative politics in this case.