From Jim DeGrood's lips tumbled the banter of a wily bureaucratic operator, a talent that included pirouetting around questions for minutes on end.
And so the transportation services director for the Regional Transportation Authority dipped and twirled for a packed house on Aug. 30 as a citizens' task force met to ponder plans to widen Broadway Boulevard into an eight-lane behemoth. This ambitious project was set in motion in 2006, when voters approved a 20-year, $2.1 billion regional transportation plan, overseen by the RTA and funded with a half-cent increase in the sales tax.
DeGrood stood behind the lectern, facing a big audience that also included a clutch of hired consultants for whom taxpayers are spending some $330,000 over the next few months. He breezily detailed the $71 million Broadway project, noting which governments were chipping in what. Then he emphasized that cost overruns topping 10 percent would require another public vote, and that any big changes to the widening plan could smack into a mysterious wall called "functionality."
Just before the populace gave his agency near-dictatorial powers over those road-building billions, the RTA board had pledged "not to diminish functionality" as project plans were updated, DeGrood said. He called it a matter of faith with the voting public.
The citizens' task force was thus convened to rehash a 20-year-old plan to plump Broadway to eight lanes, thereby obliterating an entire generation of small businesses, homes and historic properties. But if the citizens instead chose to shrink the project, they risked reducing its "functionality" in moving Tucsonans from point A to point B. And at that point, the RTA might just tell the task force to take a hike.
Of course, one man's functionality is another man's fiasco. Just ask Rocco DiGrazia, task-force member and owner of the popular Rocco's Little Chicago Pizza on Broadway. To him, functionality means keeping pace on a busy night and serving up pie after steaming pie. It does not mean ripping out a hundred buildings such as his to plant more asphalt.
Still, he says he's encouraged that the task force consists of Broadway neighbors and businesspeople who have some skin in the game. "At least we have people with vested interests who are able to express their concerns now. Myself and other members are certainly going to make sure that the committee amounts to as much as it can."
In other words, it could prove a crucial counterbalance to officials who want to start paving yesterday. "It does seem that there's a big push by those who believe that they have a mandate to do this," DiGrazia says. "When I spoke to Mr. DeGrood prior to this whole process going forward, he seemed very obstinate, and unable to think that anybody on the task force could come up with anything that was more than a minor revision to the giant plan that's going through like a steamroller."
If so, then DeGrood and the RTA have "functionality" as their all-purpose ace in the hole. In a recent interview, I asked DeGrood how the RTA would determine whether Broadway revisions had strayed too far from the 2006 mandate. He didn't really have an answer. "From our standpoint, we have to go back and reconcile that against what we presented to the voters," he said.
On the other hand, opponents of the current widening plan believe that functionality can mean something other than an eight-lane mini-highway. They argue that reshaping the road within its current boundaries could work just fine, while leaving all those homes and businesses intact.
Indeed, that would seem a prime goal of these task-force meetings, with their city-imposed mission of achieving "context sensitive solutions." That's consultant-speak for coming up with a road project that doesn't wreak too much havoc.
But getting there might actually require thinking outside the box. Among those prying off the lid is Ward 6 Councilman Steve Kozachik. Like others, he thinks the fix may be in—and that DeGrood's vague language is meant to keep the task force groping in the dark, until any changes it proposes are ultimately shot down by the RTA.
That trigger could be pulled by the agency's powerful Citizens Accountability for Regional Transportation Committee, or CART.
Standing outside the meeting, Kozachik shook his head in disgust. "I think DeGrood is setting up the CART—and using the argument about functionality—to drive the (task force) back to what was on the ballot," the councilman said.
The RTA may also be cherry-picking what it chooses to get tough about. For instance, Kozachik says a review of several Broadway engineering elements reveal them to already be well above the 10 percent cost-increase threshold that requires another public vote. "The fact of the matter is that they've already violated their own standard. So how come this whole roadway project is not already back on the ballot?"
Back inside the meeting, task-force member Colby Henley asked DeGrood how the group would know whether it was venturing too far astray.
"I think the real question," DeGrood answered, "is if (you) decide to go with something that's not matching completely the literal description" of the original plan. "... I'm not going to make a recommendation that's going to diminish functionality. Now what is functionality? I think that's pretty gray."
Contacted later by phone, Kozachik said he wants the city—the lead agency on this project—to define that darned term once and for all. He also hopes to blow out the "functional" margins a bit: "Could it include the concept of moving people instead of just automobiles? I want to broaden the definition so that we give the citizens' task force purview to explore options way beyond level of service, and take that out of the hands of the RTA."
Meanwhile, the task force's own "functionality" remains a tad murky. For instance, the group had worked for several weeks with a consultant in charge, rather than an elected chairman and vice chairman as required by law. (See "Broadway or Bust," Aug. 30.) City project manager Jenn Toothaker Burdick blamed the mix-up on bum advice from the City Clerk's Office, but declined to name names. Assistant City Clerk Suzanne Mesich says she doesn't know who gave Burdick the bad information. "There was somebody from our office who's no longer here, so I can't confirm that he gave her that information."
The task force also continues to make decisions by consensus, rather than taking votes. While this approach may be warm and fuzzy, it also might be violating the law, says City Attorney Mike Rankin.