Grey Gartin, Arizona Capitol Times
The Pinal County Public Works Department has launched a public awareness campaign to inform residents of the half-cent road excise tax on the ballot and its implications for transportation maintenance and project expansion.
The department started the “Preserving Our Future” campaign ahead of the 2024 election, when voters will determine whether the “pothole tax” will expire at the end of 2026 or be extended.
According to the Pinal County Public Works Department website, “Preserving Our Future” is meant to “highlight the history of transportation in Pinal County, the accomplishments of the current road tax, and a look at (the) future roadway maintenance, safety, and economic development needs as discussions begin surrounding the expiration of the current tax.”
In 1985, Pinal County’s population was just under 100,000 residents.
One year later, the first pothole tax was enacted to build out critical infrastructure for incorporated cities and towns in Arizona’s third most populous county.
Today, Pinal County has over 400,000 residents – thanks in part to the paving of what used to be mostly dirt and gravel roads over the past four decades.
Pinal County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff Serdy said the size and rate of growth in the county means the Transportation Improvement and Maintenance Program has taken on a uniquely important role compared to municipalities in other states.
Pinal County “is the size of Connecticut, and we’re growing like crazy,” Serdy said. “I’m from Ohio. It has 88 counties and is one-third the size of Arizona. Arizona has 15 counties and is three times the size of Ohio.”
The size of the county is not unique to Pinal necessarily, but Serdy said the amount of transportation projects and maintenance needed in that area of the state call for public input.
In smaller counties in other states, local leaders can more easily determine the highest priority projects and allocate funds for those projects, Serdy said.
In order to plan transportation projects and facilitate constituent feedback, the Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC) meets each year to “review, update, and recommend” a five-year transportation plan, according to the public works department website. The committee is comprised of two citizens from each supervisory district appointed by the Pinal County Board of Supervisors.
Committee member Kevin Louis, who represents supervisory District 3, has previously worked as the public works director of Casa Grande and has been on the Pinal County Transportation Advisory Committee for over a decade.
Louis called the Transportation Improvement and Maintenance Program “a very unique program where residents have an opportunity to go online and make requests for pavement maintenance or turning a gravel road into a paved road, those types of things.”
“Then their county staff goes through a process to evaluate each of those requests, matches it to the program dollars that we receive through the half cent sales tax, and then the Transportation Advisory Committee comes up with their annual program that they recommend to the county supervisors,” Louis added.
After a six-month period of planning and receiving public feedback earlier this year, the committee submitted a draft of the plan to the Board of Supervisors. The plan will be reviewed and voted on in the coming months.
The biggest line items in the plan draft for the next several budget years are countywide road maintenance projects – accounting for $7 million of the budget allocation for 2022-2023 alone.
Some of the next costliest aspects in the plan draft for upcoming years include the rehabilitation and expansion of the Hunt Highway and Skyline Drive in San Tan Valley, Selma Highway in Casa Grande and Kenworthy Road in Apache Junction.
“What I find is (Pinal County) is a pretty conservative county, and we’re conservative supervisors,” Serdy said. “But conservatives and Republicans usually don’t mind paying taxes as long as they see what they get for their money.”
The half-cent pothole tax set to be on the ballot next election is separate from the non-optional HURF tax, or the Highway User Revenue Fund, which is collected from gas, insurance, registration and other costs associated with owning and operating a motor vehicle.
Louis said that HURF “is generated per capita,” and “depending on our municipalities’ population, we get a percent of that revenue that comes from the state.”
According to Serdy, some of the most significant aspects of the transportation plan draft come in the form of improving arterial roads near the U.S. Route 60 highway corridor so that drivers traveling to eastern Arizona are not caught in congested traffic.
Additionally, Serdy sees the widening of Arizona State Route 347 – the two-lane “John Wayne” highway that connects the cities of Maricopa and Casa Grande to the northern part of Pinal County and Maricopa County – as an urgently needed improvement.
SR 347 “is a long, long terrible commute that needs to be widened,” Serdy said.
In Pinal County, previous transportation tax initiatives have not always been met with strong support.
Most notably, in 2017, the version of the Pinal County transportation tax that was enforced subdivided the taxing of purchases below and above $10,000. Critics argued that the tax unfairly affected lower income individuals and allowed for higher income individuals to pay less tax on valuable items like cars and jewelry.
That version of the transportation tax was challenged in court by The Goldwater Institute, and the case made its way to the Arizona Supreme Court in 2022. The court struck down the transportation tax over the way it was structured.
When Pinal County revised the tax code and sent the question back to voters during the 2022 midterm election in the form of Proposition 469, the initiative failed to pass by several thousand votes.
“That set the county back about 10 years,” Serdy said, also explaining that the next time voters decide on whether to support the next transportation tax initiative, circumstances will be different from 2017.
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