'Dancing this dance of sensitivity'
A joint-litigation attorney for Pinal County Regional Transportation Authority wrote a letter to the Department of Revenue on Wednesday asking when and how the voter-approved half-cent sales tax will be implemented.
The sales tax is the funding mechanism for countywide road improvements, including the widening of State Route 347. RTA-related propositions 416 and 417 were approved in November.
PRTA General Manager Andy Smith told board members Wednesday a response from ADOR is expected by Feb. 5.
A sticking point in the progress of RTA planning is a lawsuit filed by the Goldwater Institute in December challenging the validity of the half-cent sales tax. Goldwater’s attorneys claim Prop 417 exceeds the county authority by taxing only items below $10,000, “creating a new tax classification instead of a variable rate and violates the Equal Protection Clause by taxing transactions below an arbitrary threshold amount but not above that amount.”
The Goldwater Institute is suing Pinal County, PRTA and the Department of Revenue on behalf of two county residents and the Arizona Restaurant Association.
Smith said the respective attorneys “have been having conversations” to create briefs and establish “stipulated facts.”
The PRTA board has hopes for an April 1 implementation of the tax.
Maricopa Mayor Christian Price, a member of the board, explained the challenges of SR 347, both geographically and politically. The main agencies involved in adding lanes to the highway are PRTA, Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), Gila River Indian Community and Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG).
“It’s an incredibly complex road,” Price said. “It’s on Gila River land, it crosses county lines, it’s a state-owned road, it’s the city of Maricopa pushing for it.”
To prevent bottle-neck at the county line, “we need help on the Maricopa County side,” Price said. Maricopa leaders have been in discussions with MAG and Gila River for years. MAG specifically has discussed solutions for problems at interchanges at Riggs Road and old Maricopa Highway (Wild Horse Pass) and the possibility of using MC Prop 400 funds for improvements.
In the ongoing discussions, the sour relationship between Gila River and ADOT is “throwing things out of whack,” Price said. Gila River sued the state in 2015 over the South Mountain Freeway construction.
“MAG is conducting the scoping study, and we’ll kind of leave it in their hands because of the sensitivities,” Price said.
“Obviously, to come up with a fix for you all in Maricopa, that’s going to take Maricopa County to get involved,” county Supervisor Pete Rios said. He warned that often Native American communities are planning “seven generations down the road. We do need to be sensitive to where some of these tribes are coming from.”
Price said he has been working with Gila River Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis for two years. “We’re really trying to dance this dance of sensitivity,” he said.
The RTA plan is to provide $28.8 million over the next five years to fund additional lanes for nine miles of SR 347.