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Pinal County residents have been paying an extra half-cent retail sales tax since April to fund future transportation projects.

Wednesday, a Maricopa County Superior Court Tax Court judge said that violates state law. That puts the breaks on plans to widen State Route 347, at least for the moment.

Now the battle may be fought inside the Arizona Court of Appeals.

Voters narrowly approved Prop 417 in November, the funding mechanism of the Pinal County Regional Transportation Authority’s Prop 416 that would provide a 20-year plan to create and improve roads. That plan seeks to add lanes to SR 347.

Phoenix-based conservative thinktank The Goldwater Institute filed suit in December, challenging the tax’s legality in the case Harold Vangilder, et al. v. Arizona Department of Revenue, et al. Goldwater later motioned the court to delay the collection of the tax.

Judge Christopher Whitten denied the request in March and the tax was implemented April 1. Those funds are held in escrow until the conclusion of the case.

Aug. 2, Whitten ruled the county-wide tax did not coincide with statute as it too narrowly targets a tax on retail and not on all sales tax categories, according to court documents.

The Goldwater Institute applauded Whitten’s most recent decision in a press release published to its website the day of the ruling.

“Thanks to the Court’s decision, Pinal County taxpayers are the real winners today,” Goldwater Institute Vice President for Litigation Timothy Sandefur said. “Had this sales tax gone forward, the damage to taxpayers’ wallets and to economic opportunity in Pinal County would have been immense.”

The Institute claimed the monies collected since April will have to be refunded by the county.

A statement on the Pinal RTA website challenged the judge’s ruling and argued voters knew in November the tax applies to all classifications and not just retail sales. Whitten said the wording of Prop 417 was “insufficient” to establish that.

Pinal RTA indicated the war over the funding may not be over.

“…We disagree with Judge Whitten’s ruling and will consult with outside counsel regarding an appeal to the State Court of Appeals,” according to the Pinal RTA statement.

“I’m disappointed with the ruling, but confident we will win on appeal,” Pinal County Supervisor Anthony Smith said. “The sooner we get this done, the sooner we reduce accidents, save lives and build for the future.”

Requests for comments from Pinal RTA General Manager Andy Smith, Pinal County spokesman Joe Pyritz, Pinal RTA Citizens Advisory Committee Member Tena Dugan, and Mayor Christian Price, who is a Pinal RTA Board Member, were not immediately returned.


This story has been updated to include remarks from Anthony Smith.

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The Goldwater Institute’s lawsuit against the Pinal Regional Transportation Authority Plan (RTA) is in the hands of a judge as of May 21, and a ruling is expected at the end of June or the beginning of July.

Whatever the outcome, RTA officials are moving forward with preparations to put the voter-approved project in motion. The project includes additional lanes on State Route 347. The half-cent sales tax to pay for the RTA went into effect April 1.

Andy Smith, RTA general manager, said the organization has been working with Maricopa and Casa Grande to seek grant opportunities for the east-west corridor. That four-lane, 21-mile project connecting Maricopa with Interstate 10 in Casa Grande was estimated in the election pamphlet to cost $67.2 million. That has now been refigured to $74 million.

The east-west corridor had been marked for Phase I but is now in Phase III (years 2029-33).

The widening of State Route 347 from Maricopa to the Maricopa County line has seen its estimated cost reduced from $28.8 million to $23 million. That work is slated for 2021-22, Phase I of the RTA.

Smith told the Pinal County Board of Supervisors the RTA is working with Maricopa Association of Governments and Gila Riva Indian Community.

“The RTA has pledged $100,000 to $150,000 to help facilitate funding” to help create a design concept report for SR 347 for the entire stretch from Maricopa to Interstate 10 in Maricopa County, he said, adding the City of Maricopa is part of the discussions as well.

He said the Department of Revenue is two months in arrears on its tax collections. The collections that started in April are held in escrow.

District 4 Supervisor Anthony Smith of Maricopa encouraged RTA officials to start moving as they await the ruling on the Goldwater case.

“Get as many things as shovel-ready as possible, especially the priority-one projects,” he said. “Because hopefully there will be a federal transportation bill that will come at some point or there will be grant opportunities.

“If we are prepared and we’ve got the engineering done and we’ve got maybe some of the right-of-way acquisition – and the more steps we have so that we’re truly shovel-ready – the more we’re going to get mileage out of the money that we put into this.”

Andy Smith said the RTA wants a representative of Arizona Department of Transportation on its board to help with more collaboration. Mayor Christian Price is on the board, Maricopa Public Works Director Bill Fay is on the technical Transportation Advisory Committee. Maricopa’s Tena Dugan and Terri Crain are members of the Citizen Transportation Advisory Committee, answering to the Board of Directors. Dugan chairs the committee.

The RTA includes 15 transportation improvement projects around the county.

PinalRTA.org


This story appears in the June issue of InMaricopa.

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Citizen Transportation Advisory Committee members Terri Crain (left) and Tena Dugan.

The Board for the Pinal County Regional Transportation Authority (PRTA) announced the names of the citizens selected for the new Citizen Transportation Advisory Committee (CTAC).

The PRTA Board approved Terri Crain as Supervisor Anthony Smith’s representative on the committee and Tena Dugan has been selected to represent Mayor Christian Price. Crain is president/CEO for the Maricopa Chamber of Commerce, a Maricopa resident and an avid supporter of several non-profits. She originally began her career with the Maricopa Chamber of Commerce in 2006.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for the business community to have a seat at the table in this very important planning process, I am thrilled that the Supervisor appointed me,” Crain said.

“Terri is an outspoken advocate for creating for Maricopa a healthy business climate, and I know she will extend that passion for improving important links such as the SR 347 and the Maricopa/Casa Grande Highway,” Smith said. “I’m confident Terri will be a strong advocate to help push both high priority projects.”

Dugan is a longtime resident of Maricopa and has owned the Napa Auto Parts store since 2001.

“I welcome Tena Dugan to the Citizen Transportation Advisory Committee,” Price said. “As a business owner and an engaged citizen, Tena knows firsthand the importance of improving our infrastructure in order to have Maricopa grow and prosper. She will be a valuable member of this committee.”

The creation of a CTAC supports the Pinal County Regional Transportation Authority that was approved by the voters in November 2017. The purpose of the CTAC is to inform and collaborate the plans for construction of parkways, principal arterial streets and transit projects throughout all Pinal County.

Sales tax set to be implemented April 1

The RTA plans are aimed at widening State Route 347 and establishing an east-west corridor.

Pinal County and the Regional Transportation Authority filed a legal response Monday to an injunction request filed by the Goldwater Institute over a transportation sales tax.

The tax and the transportation infrastructure improvements it is meant to fund (Props 416/417) were approved by county voters in November. The Goldwater Institute, a conservative thinktank based in Phoenix, filed suit in December against the county, the RTA and the Arizona Department of Revenue. Plaintiffs are listed as Arizona Restaurant Association, county resident Harold Vangilder and On Sight Shooting owner Dan Neidig.

The suit [read it here] challenges the legality of the tax and also claims it exceeds the county’s authority “by creating a new tax classification.”

“The problem is the tax is so complicated and confusing that nobody really knows what is taxed and how,” Timothy Sandefur, Goldwater vice president, said at the time.

After the defendants filed a response in January, the plaintiffs asked the court for a preliminary injunction, hoping to stop the implementation of the tax on April 1. They said collecting the tax while the suit is still being decided would cause irreparable injury and hardship. [Read the motion here.]

The case is in Maricopa County Superior Court in front of Judge Chris Whitten.

In responding to Goldwater’s motion, the defendants called the claims of voter confusion “apparitional.” The response [read it here] also stated the plaintiffs failed to meet the requirements for injunction.

“This lawsuit is nothing more than a post-election attack by those who failed to convince voters to oppose the transportation tax at the election,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Todd House stated. “The voters spoke clearly about the need for improved transportation infrastructure in the Pinal region last November while also expressing their willingness to pay an additional sales tax that amounts to about $7.33 per month per household.”

There is continuing uncertainty over the legal ramifications if the court does not grant the preliminary injunction to halt the start of tax collection on April 1 but Whitten later rules against the RTA. The county cannot proceed with RTA plans until the case is settled.


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'Dancing this dance of sensitivity'

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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.


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As ballot-counting continues from Tuesday’s election, the gap widens between yes votes and no votes regarding regional transportation.

Proposition 416 is well on its way to approval, which would indicate voters like the countywide planned improvements. That includes the widening of State Route 347 up to the Maricopa County line. Less certain, but still leaning even more toward approval, is Prop 417, the funding mechanism for the Regional Transportation Authority.

With 2,600 votes still waiting to be counted, Prop 416 has nearly 57 percent approval. Prop 417 has almost 51 percent approval, with Yes votes ahead by 705 votes.

Pinal County has 2,600 ballots to yet count.

Dan Frank

By Dan Frank

As a civil engineer, I work on design, construction and maintenance of the physical and built environment, seeking solutions to solve everyday problems. One priority is our transportation corridors, particularly State Route 347.

If elected, one of my priorities will be working with the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), Pinal County, Gila River Indian Community (GRIC), Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) and others to improve (widen) SR347 for better access to I-10. SR 347, Maricopa’s primary ingress and egress route, will inevitably reach gridlock. The time to begin planning for expansion and improvements is now.

There will assuredly be hurdles, particularly how to pay for a project of this scope? One option is the proposed Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), which would be a voter-approved half-cent sales tax over 20 years to help fund highway projects throughout Pinal County. There are significant challenges with the RTA, including whether it is the best solution or even feasible at this point.

I have spoken with engineers, ADOT representatives, and former City employees about the project. All express serious concerns about viability, with emphasis in three key areas: Geometry, potential increased signalization, and the Gila River Indian Community ROW Agreement.

Geometry – The most logical improvement seems to be adding one additional lane toward the center median to the northbound and southbound lanes. However, ADOT’s Roadway Design Guidelines allow for a median width of 16 feet when a concrete barrier is used. Each additional lane is about 12 feet, and when combined with the median, would require 40 feet. The average existing space is 45 feet, so there is ample room to expand, until you consider left-turn intersections. There is not enough room to provide turn lanes and a safe buffer without compromising traffic flow and safety.

Increased Signalization at Side Roads – There are a total of five access points between Maricopa and Riggs Road.  SR 347’s narrow median and higher speed design could result in additional signals at these intersections. There are three already, and adding more only further reduces traffic flow/efficiency.

GRIC Right-of-Way Agreement – SR 347 crosses the Gila River Indian Community as an easement, not as right-of-way in its traditional sense.  The current agreement allows for two lanes in each direction. Any modification to this agreement would require GRIC approval. This is a vital component of ADOT’s ability to make any improvements on roads that cross GRIC land and any decision will require time, collaboration, communication and cooperation.

Alternatives and Solutions – Being a civil engineer, I’m all about finding alternatives and solutions. The SR 347 improvements are needed, but the main challenge is creating adequate capacity at intersections, particularly Riggs Road. This intersection has a significant amount of vehicular accidents, so one option is to build a grade-separated crossing – a bridge to keep north/southbound traffic moving. The same may need to be done at the I-10 interchange. Grade separations add cost, but they improve traffic flow and mitigate accidents.

My campaign emphasizes “doing things right, but also doing the right things.” I support improving SR 347, but not without continued, focused discussions with GRIC, ADOT, Pinal County and MAG to ensure the project is feasible and fundable. Before we ask the voters to approve a 20-year sales tax increase, let’s make sure we can delivery improved transportation, not another “dead end.”


Dan Frank is a candidate for Maricopa City Council.

Voters may be asked to consider ½-cent sales tax

Maricopa residents (from left) Julio Torres, Stuart Myers, Jessica Massa and Eric Cope commute daily to the East Valley on State Route 347 and have varying opinions on a possible ballot issue that could add lanes to the highway. Photo by William Lange

A half-cent sales tax could relieve some of the traffic pressure on State Route 347, if Pinal County voters go for it.

The Board of Supervisors had expected to to place a Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) proposal on the November ballot during its Wednesday meeting. However, according to County Manager Greg Stanley, push-back on the half-cent sales tax has the RTA calling a special meeting for Thursday at 11 a.m. They will consider revising the plan.

The tax would raise approximately $14.6 million annually over the next 20 years for 13 transportation improvement projects around the county.

High on the priority list is adding one lane each direction on the nine-mile stretch of SR 347 from the city of Maricopa to the Maricopa County line.

That is the fourth-most expensive project on the RTA list (see below) at an estimated $28.8 million.

The total estimated funds needed for all projects on the list (see map) and administration and other services is $640 million.

Louis Andersen, the Public Works director for Pinal County, said if voters approve the half-cent sales tax, the county would begin collecting the money on April 1. Some funds could become available at the end of June.

Should the RTA get an affirmative vote, more SR 347 lanes would not be a sure thing for the near future, though that project is included in Phase 1 of implementation.

An important aspect of the project is making sure it does not stop at the county line but continues to the Interstate 10 interchange. That involves coordination with the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG).

For some Maricopa residents, adding lanes is an obvious choice while others aren’t so sure:

Eric Cope has been commuting on SR 347 since 2006. He does not think more lanes will solve the problems and says a tax would be a waste of time. “The biggest issue is that anytime there is an accident, they shut down the whole road. If there are three lanes, they’ll shut down three lanes instead of two. What they need is to add a secondary route and pave a couple of the Indian roads – that would be ideal.”

Jessica Massa started commuting two years ago to Chandler, and was unprepared for the drive-time Maricopa traffic. “Some days, it’s not that bad, and sometimes it takes and hour to an hour and a half. If there’s an accident it’s more like two hours. I think adding the lanes will be a big help.”

Julio Torres has been commuting to the East Valley since 2008. “When you have a lot of folks who are in a rush and don’t allow enough time to get to work, it’s a challenge.” The proposed sales tax, he said, won’t be much help. “What would help is another route out of town, if we had our own version of the 101, the 202 or the 303 to downtown Phoenix.”

Stuart Myers has been commuting for eight years and said the traffic experience depends on the time of day. “If you’re drive between 5:45 and 6 in the morning, it takes half an hour to get to the airport. If you leave at 6:10, it takes 45 minutes to an hour. Drivers have no regard for anything; it’s just a race to a red light.” He said added lanes would not hurt, but other solutions are needed as well. “If Riggs Road was four lanes, I think that could help, too. And we need better outlets, as well. It’s never going to be one-and-done. We need long-term solutions.”


“There are hurdles to get over before it becomes a project,” said Eric Anderson, the transportation director for MAG.

What has stopped initiation of improvements to the roadway up to this point has been lack of a funding source. If that is secured through a citizens’ vote in Pinal County, the project could be added to MAG’s Regional Transportation Plan, Anderson said.

“Then we have to make sure it meets our air-quality standards,” he said. “There are steps to go through.”

That includes government studies.

“We have worked with MAG, had discussions with them, and they have tentatively agreed to conduct a study to determine what are the best options for achieving our goal to reduce the drive time from Maricopa to I-10,” Maricopa City Manager Gregory Rose said.

Rose said the city and MAG are looking for processes to assure any improvements in Pinal County extend to the I-10 interchange in Maricopa County.

“We’ve already started the process of engaging stakeholders along that corridor,” Rose said.

The idea of adding lanes to SR 347 also has to pass through Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), which is responsible for the roadway, and Gila River Indian Community, which owns the land.

“If Gila River says no, the discussion is over at that point,” Anderson said.

The ADOT process can be a major hurdle by itself, if state or federal funds are needed for the project.

“The Arizona Department of Transportation is supportive of any community or local agency that has identified additional transportation revenue to complete projects that are needed,” spokesman Dustin Krugel said. “In order for any project to move forward (that is funded partially or completely with state funds), it would need to be added to ADOT’s Five-Year Transportation Facilities Construction Program, which serves as a blueprint for future projects and designates how much local, state and federal funding is allocated for those projects.”

SR 347 is not on that five-year program. To become part of that plan, a project has to go through layers of review and (if federal funds are involved) the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, with public and stakeholder outreach. NEPA can take 2-3 years, Kruegel said.

If the SR 347 project is able to avoid using federal funds, at least one layer of review can be removed.

One of MAG’s goals is to have people working closer to where they live. That means boosting economic development and drawing employers to places like Maricopa. Anderson said that is the most efficient way of solving commuter traffic problems.

In current conditions, additional lanes seem the likely solution to traffic-flow problems. “It certainly needs it, given the amount of traffic,” Anderson said.

“I believe everyone is in agreement that it’s a reasonable goal to try to reduce the drive time,” Rose said.

Meanwhile, the RTA still needs to get on the ballot. “By statute, the board has to have that resolution to forward for the General Election by the 11th of July,” Stanley said.

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Pinal County RTA Projects Considered for Half-Cent Sales Tax
Project                                                                                                           Mileage             Cost
•    New North-South Corridor from Apache Junction to Coolidge                 36 miles           $345.6 million
•    New State Route 24 Parkway from Meridian Road to N-S Corridor            5 miles            $48 million
•    Casa Grande Connector additional lanes from Henness to N-S Corridor   14 miles           $44.8 million
•    State Route 347 additional lanes from Maricopa to county line                9 miles            $28.8 million
•    Selma Highway road construction from Casa Grande to Coolidge            16 miles           $25.6 million.
•    Montgomery Road additional lanes from I-8 to M-CG Highway                 8 miles            $25.6 million.
•    I-10 traffic interchange at Kleck and Korston roads                                  0.5 mile           $15 million.
•    Thornton Road additional lanes from SR 84 to I-8                                    3.5 miles          $11.2 million.
•    Burris Road additional lanes from SR 84 to Alamo Road                           1.5 miles          $4.8 million.
•    West Pinal Freeway Right of Way from I-8 to county line                        28 miles           $4.2 million.
•    Peters Road additional lanes from Burris to Thornton                               1 mile             $3.2 million.
•    Saddlebrook new road                                                                              1 mile              $2.5 million
•    N-S Corridor Right of Way from Korsten/Kleck to I-10                             15 miles           $2.2 million.
•    Public Transportation – Park & Ride lots, Dial-A-Ride                                                      $28.2 million
•    Municipal local projects                                                                                                    $24 million
•    Contingency                                                                                                                      $20.3 million
•    Administrative costs                                                                                                          $6 million


This is an updated version of a story that ran in the July issue of InMaricopa.