I got up at 6am so I could make it to the Pascua Yaqui Justice Center, south west of Tucson, at 9. Two hours at 75mph on the old Nighthawk at that hour of the morning was a lot. I showed up tired, wind blown, a bit shaky, and my stomach upset from having fed naught but coffee, but with four minutes to spare before people started settling in.
Two meetings were being held: a general meeting, and a meeting for the 5 Year Plan. I filled out a yellow card to speak during the 5 Year Plan portion of the meeting then staked out a seat in the front row. In the front of the small auditorium, about 8 or 10 people sat behind tables. Their names and positions (board member, directory, and so forth) were old style wooden widgets like people used to all have on their desks. They talked among themselves, thanking their hosts, the Pascua Yaqui tribe, for their hospitality and thanked them for the accommodations.
The comment portion of the 5 Year Plan meeting happened second. I had made some notes the night before of what I wanted to say, but I rewrote them while I waited to be called. There were no shortage of speakers. Owners of construction companies stood up and spoke in their three piece suits. A board member from the Nogales Tourist Association spoke. A mayor from a local small city spoke; then it was the director of a regional airport, a representative of Southwest Gas, someone from an association of local businesses, PAG (Pima Association of Governments, the regional organization that handles efforts such as public transit that span cities) had their interium director there. A Mexican consulate spoke about the importance of ground transportation between the US and Mexico, and about how our manufacturing is now so intertwined that goods cross the boarder multiple times before being assembled into a finished project. There were others.
Some people asked for help with specific dangerous intersections that have had a lot of accidents. Many, such as the mayor and construction companies, had no particular agenda except to re-affirm their ongoing working relationship with ADOT, and were essentially saying “hello, good to see you”.
I was called, so I stood up, walked over, said good morning to the board and chairman, introduce myself as Scott Walters, with Tempe Bicycle Action Group, and said, approximately: We work closely with the City of Tempe and with the Maricopa Association of Governments, for example conducting the Tempe Bike Count and helping with Bike to Work Day. Last year in the Bike Count, we counted 28 locations, for 4 hours, and tallied near 7,000 cyclists. I’m here to ask for alternatives to highways, such as light rail and bike paths. Young professionals increasingly want to live near city centers, not in suburbs, and to spend their money on entertainment, not on car ownership. Safety is the number one reason people don’t ride bikes. Often roads have 45mph limits with no other way through. Many people ride anyway, and often the wrong way, or on the sidewalk, which are more dangerous for cyclists. By DOTs statistics, there was a drop from 37,000 to 32,000 road fatalities from 2008 to 2011, but pedestrian and cyclist deaths rose from 12% to 16% of those fatalities. Please include bicycles and pedestrians in the 5 Year Plan. Thank you for your time and attention.
And then I sat down again, and other people continued to speak. In all, these three minute addresses to the board amounted to an hour.
After the public comments period, the 5 Year Plan meeting was had. It was a meeting conducted entirely for the benefit of the observing public. None of the ADOT staff or board present made any motions or reported anything new to each other, but there was still some formality, with the chief engineer re-presenting the three alternative plans (A, B, and C) and giving background on them.
ADOT is facing a budget reduction from 2.6 billion to 1.9 billion. As part of dealing with that, the engineering staff was asked to prepare three different plans, one maximizing new development, one maximizing maintenance, and another serving as a compromise. The road projects considered are various highway corridors and connections, highway on ramps, bridge work, and so forth.
1.9 billion sounds like a lot of money, but ADOT, like state transportation departments across the country, has worked year after year to expand the road network, and in doing so has created a serious maintenance obligation. Being able to do new development in the next five years amounts to neglecting maintenance in the hopes that there is a surplus later to catch it up.
The meeting started with a presentation as a sort of report by the chief engineer, with pretty graphs of funds allocation, maps of projects, and background on the projects. The two projects being carried forward are ones that primarily have money coming from external sources. Then the board talked about things amongst themselves for the benefit of the audience.
Arizona is a rare state that does not fund road projects with gas taxes. Reportedly, each cent of gas tax would give them another 30 million dollars a year. I strongly suspect that you could make some friends in ADOT if you become a major advocate for the gas tax.
Here are some quotes from the 5 Year Plan meeting:
We really do want comments – we’d like you to encourage your friends to file formal comments – Scott, the lead traffic engineer
Thank you all for being respectful concerning the budget shortfall when making comments.
In the past, 76% [of the budget] was spent on expansion.
Approximately 600 comments were filed. 300 of them spoke in support of alternate transportation. 300 spoke in support of Plan A, B, or C.
Your input is very import to us and does affect how transportation funds are spent. – Chairman Victor Flores. [This was spoken very earnestly, almost as a plea, as if the audience possessed a voice of reason that would spare him from a consuming madness.]
A lot of these organizations want to be at the table but in my opinion, they need to take the lead. We’re viewed skeptically. – Council Member Joe La Rue [I knew it!]
ADOT cannot make these decisions alone. Economic development is a wise place to put money. – Board Member John S Halikowski
Individual contribution [to roadways] comes to about $288 a year. – Board Member Joe La Rue.
People who spoke here today – you’ve got to get fired up! – Joe La Rue
That’s it for the direct quotes.
I think I learned a lot about how politics works today, and the stereotype is wrong. The more people I meet working in the city, state, and in organizations like MAG, the more I realize that these guys are trying really, really hard to do a good job, and they want help and friends as badly as we do.
Then, a reporter from KVOA snuck up to the front row and asked for an interview, so, hey, maybe I’m on TV in Tucson.
I’d like to make the Flagstaff meeting on May 10 as well. It seems fitting that I would go to Tucson to talk about Tempe and then go to Flagstaff to talk about Tucson. I want to stand up for my three minutes and tell the ADOT board and engineers about how my friends and I rode our bikes all over southern Arizona over and over again, and then went to France to do a long distance ride with people from all over the country. I want to thank them for re-paving Mission road, and tell them how, prior to that, we had decided that it was maintained by the Beirut Road Department, and they would teaspoon asphalt into the craters every day after using it for shelling practice. Arizona is also full of wonderful roads with great shoulders. It seems fitting that since I got to know them a lot better, they should get to know some of their friends from TBAG a lot better. TBAG, and people on bikes in Arizona aren’t just me, though. If you’d like to join me in thanking the people working for us and make some friends, please go to http://www.biketempe.org/join-us/update-your-tbag-contact-info/ and get registered for advocacy alerts.