AZ: Ownership Spat Could Derail Streetcar

Feb. 28 -- Tucson's modern streetcar could be stopped in its tracks if Tucson and the Regional Transportation Authority can't agree on which of them should be at the throttle.

The transportation plan approved by voters in 2006 requires the RTA to contribute $75 million toward the $197 million project. But before the authority hands over its final installment on that obligation, the board says it wants a new agreement from the city on who owns the system once it's done.

The authority still owes $20 million for its share of construction costs. It has also pledged $12.7 million for operations and maintenance, but that money will come later. The federal government has also pledged about $69 million in grants to support the project.

A 2010 funding agreement between the RTA and city of Tucson specifies the city shall be the owner of the project upon completion.

The new language proposed by the RTA says the city and the RTA will "mutually agree" upon ownership of the system. The city council will discuss the proposal today.

The new language is giving some council members heartburn, especially after the RTA initiated a controversial attempt in 2009 to take over the city's transit system.

Councilwoman Regina Romero said she's not comfortable with the language, saying she doesn't remember the RTA ever suggesting that in exchange for road dollars, it would want to retain ownership of roads afterward.

"I think this is bordering on coercion," she said, noting she thinks it's an attempt by the RTA staff to extend its life beyond the 20 years authorized by voters, when the half-cent sales tax runs out as well.

Romero said she understands some colleagues may be more than willing to unload the streetcar, with some concerns already voiced about taking on another costly transit subsidy with an already-stressed city budget.

"We need to have that conversation — but not in a coercive fashion and not with the RTA saying we'll give you this last $20 million if you sign away your rights as a chartered city," she said.

Fellow Democrat Karin Uhlich was concerned enough that she's been asking her constituents their thoughts on what she called "a rock and a hard place situation."

On the one hand, she said, any further delay to haggle with the RTA could jeopardize the timing of the project.

On the other, she said, she suggested it was a power play, adding that she doesn't want to give in to an attempt to "force Tucson into talks of ownership and operation of assets in this backhanded way."

Uhlich said she is leaning toward agreeing to the language, but said she hopes the council will be strong in reaffirming its intent to retain ownership of the system.

Gary Hayes, head of the RTA, said the criticism of back-door power politics is unfair.

"Who's the primary investor in this project?" he asked. "This is just business sense."

He said in the 2010 agreement, the authority pushed, and received, the right to be co-manager of the project.

"All this does is codify that relationship," he said.

"At the end of the day, every project in the plan is the responsibility of the RTA to implement," he said. While they rely on other jurisdictions, it's his agency that has the statutory responsibility to build the project.

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said he understands there is some concern on the council, but in the end, he thinks the agreement is fine, with an ownership discussion somewhere in the long run.

"My view is we're not giving up anything by saying we'll discuss it at some point in the future," he said.

"We need to have that conversation — but ... not with the RTA saying we'll give you this last $20 million if you sign away your rights as a chartered city."

Regina Romero, Tucson City Council member

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at rbodfield@azstarnet.com or 573-4243.

Copyright 2012 - The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

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