Tucson’s Potholed Road to the Fourth Tier

tucson potholes

The City of Tucson is thinking of cutting its share of funding for the Regional Transportation Authority.

Well, that should do it. That should drop metro Tucson from the third tier to the fourth tier of metropolises of over a million population.

More on the RTA momentarily, but first some relevant background, starting with the City of Tucson and then moving outward to the suburbs.

The city is in the third tier because it doesn’t fare well in such measures as median household income, the percent of college graduates, the breadth and depth of the local economy, the crime rate, the performance of the largest school district, the transportation network, and most visibly, the condition of roads, other public property, and commercial property.

Regarding roads, they are inadequate, hazardous, littered, marred by illegal and tacky signage, and reflective of decades of deferred maintenance. Beautification of rights-of-way seems to be against the law.

Most of the surrounding unincorporated county, which accounts for a staggering 36 percent of the metropolis, is not any better—and worse in some parts. Since the city accounts for about 50 percent of the metropolis, this means that 86 percent of metro Tucson has major issues with maintenance and curb appeal.

The small incorporated suburbs of Oro Valley and Marana have better curb appeal, but the main gateway to Marana, Interstate 10, isn’t exactly a thing of beauty. The same for the main gateway to Oro Valley, State Route 77 (Oracle Rd.)

The saving grace for the metropolis is that it has a climate that is milder than the climate in Phoenix, is situated in the middle of a pretty natural setting, and is ringed by national park lands, including such gorgeous attractions as Sabino Canyon. But those attributes have nothing to do with local government—or, more accurately, are in spite of local government.

It’s almost shocking to see a roadway in the city or county that has been beautified, and even then, the upkeep is inadequate. Take the recent costly reconstruction of Kolb Rd. between Sunrise and Sabino Canyon roads, in the unincorporated county not far from the city limit of Tucson. The section has beautiful views of the Santa Catalina and Rincon mountains.

Funded by the RTA, the project included a center turn lane, a sidewalk, a bike path, some artwork, a traffic circle (roundabout) at the intersection of Kolb and Territory Dr., and attractive landscaping of boulders, riprap, and shrubs.

Here’s a photo of the roundabout soon after it was built:

Photo from the RTA website.

Unfortunately, deterioration and deferred maintenance are already happening.

First, probably due to a bad design of the circle, semi-trucks are running over the adjoining curbing, storm water inlets, and sidewalk, resulting in at least two of the inlets being crushed. Using the app SeeClickFix, a local resident asked the county to repair the inlets, but the request was denied. No doubt, the damage will spread from the inlets to the adjoining curbing and sidewalks.

Second, the roadway is being marred by litter and illegal signs. For example, at the intersection of Kolb and Sunrise, which is a couple of blocks north of the circle, a total of 15 printed, plastic advertising signs have been placed on the shoulders and in the medians over just the last three weeks, in violation of county ordinances.

Photo by Craig Cantoni

To its credit, the county will remove illegal signs if requested.  To its discredit, it doesn’t do so as a matter of course without being asked.  Sometimes, it’s just easier for residents to remove them, but at the risk of being run over or assaulted by the cretins who plant the signs.

The county is often an offender, in the sense that when it completes roadwork, it typically fails to pick up sandbags, safety cones, barricades, and warning lights that have been left in the brush along the right-of-way.  And after traffic accidents, it leaves broken glass and car parts in the street instead of sweeping them up.

The busy intersection of Sunrise and Kolb is an intersection that my wife and I try to keep clean of not only illegal signs but also litter, along with three miles of roadway north of Sunrise.  The volume of litter is so heavy that it has become a daily chore.  Judging by addresses on the receipts found in bags of discarded fast food, much of the litter comes from the other side of town.

Neither county officials nor most property owners along the stretch seem to care what the roadway looks like.  Perhaps they’ve lived in Tucson for so long they’ve become desensitized to the conditions and think that poor upkeep is normal.

It is not normal, though.  Some cities in metro Phoenix and other metropolises require property owners to keep their frontages clean and nicely landscaped up to the curb.  These municipalities also sweep busy roads every two weeks.  Pima County sweeps Kolb and similar roads about every two months.

Pima County and the City of Tucson are also remiss in such preventative maintenance of roads as crack sealing and top-coating, which extend the life of pavement and saves money over the long run.

There are bizarre examples in the metropolis of poor maintenance and a lack of management oversight.  One of my favorites is a tree that is growing in a crack between the pavement and curb at the median of the intersection of Sabino Canyon and Kolb near Speedway.  The tree has been ignored for so long by the city that it is now three feet tall.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the title of a best-selling book.  A Tree Grows in a Tucson Street could be the title of another book.

Clearly, the Tucson metropolis needs a concerted, coordinated, metro-wide focus on, and funding of, transportation improvements and road construction and maintenance.  That is the primary purpose of the Regional Transportation Authority.

But the City of Tucson is saying that, as the most populated jurisdiction, it is being shortchanged because it contributes more to the RTA through a special sales tax than it gets back in projects.  As such, it is considering going it alone.

One problem with that argument is that people who don’t reside in Tucson have helped to subsidize the tremendous cost of the redevelopment of downtown Tucson.  Another problem is that county courts and offices are concentrated in downtown Tucson, thus resulting in county employees in those buildings and visitors to those buildings spending money in Tucson, even if they don’t live in Tucson.  Still another problem is that many other people who reside outside of the city pay city sales taxes when they go to the city to shop, dine, and otherwise recreate.

The biggest problem is that the city’s parochial view hurts the entire region, which ultimately hurts the city.

Not only that, but there is a way around the issue of Tucson feeling that it isn’t getting its fair sure.  The Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) in metro Phoenix shows the way.

MAG has the same mission as the RTA but has been delivering on its mission for much longer and much more effectively.  MAG is able to bring together 27 municipalities, three Indian communities, Maricopa County, and parts of Pinal County.  By contrast, the RTA has difficulty in keeping together five municipalities, two Indian communities, and Pima County.

It is enlightening to compare the information on MAG’s website with the information on the RTA’s website.  Particularly interesting is how MAG’s system of voting on projects can take population into consideration when requested by a large municipality such as Phoenix—but doing so in a way that doesn’t fracture MAG.

Unfortunately, Tucson is so parochial that it thinks that it has nothing to learn from Phoenix.

Which is why it is in the third tier and heading for the fourth.

Mr. Cantoni moved to Tucson over six years ago for family reasons from metro Phoenix and has lived in several other metropolises, including metro Chicago and New York.  Contact:  ccan2@aol.com or craigcantoni@gmail.com.

About Craig J. Cantoni 29 Articles
Community Activist Craig Cantoni strategizes on ways to make Tucson a better to live, work and play.


  1. This is why I avoid spending any money within the city limits of Tucson. This editorial also does not mention that the city begged to have its main project in the first RTA, the downtown trolley, to be front loaded. They got what they wanted and then when funds were not available at the end of RTA 1 for other projects, they started whining.

  2. Author is right. But Tucson has always been a trashy town and I don’t see any reason for it to change. Garbage all over the roadways is like a right of passage and the Sh***y Clowncil members or County Bored of Stuporvisors are oblivious. They get their paychecks and feelings of great power and they’re happy with that.

  3. Funny, now that Chuck Fuckelberry has retired, Pima Bounty now has the money to repair the roads, lots of repaving going on all over the county, in the meantime all of Chuck’s soccer fields are vacant, time to repurpose them into something useful.

  4. I thought the tent cities under I-10 overpasses was nice
    got off on prince and tents lined sidewalk going down off ramp
    it must have been laundry day as fence was lined with clothes drying in sun

    and that round about off sunrise/kolb – dumbest idea ever

  5. I’m guessing that the app to track human feces in San Francisco can be adapted for other cities. It appears Tucson is headed in that direction.

  6. Well, at least someone is trying. Imagine what would happen if more people made themselves heard?

  7. Unbelievably accurate and truthful article by the author, as well as others he has written. Unfortunately for him, having been here for only six years, he is pretty much wasting his time and efforts because he is not one of the ‘power brokers’ in Pima County/COT and may not realize it’s always been this way.

    Be nice if he was and I salute his efforts but…

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