RTA funds address transportation and wildlife needs

From the outset, the Regional Transportation Authority plan set aside funding for both detailed roadway project improvements as defined on the ballot and other projects that fit into a more broadly defined category of spending, such as ‘safety’.

When it drafted the current plan, the 2005 RTA Citizens Advisory Committee recognized the need to have a combination of approaches to address connectivity and regional mobility. Following extensive public involvement, the RTA plan, including categorical funding for wildlife linkages, was approved.

Wildlife projects exemplify flexibility and opportunity

The environmental, transit and safety elements of the RTA plan included built-in flexibility on how to spend the excise tax revenues budgeted for each of those categories, including $45 million designated for critical wildlife linkages in the environmental element. Member jurisdictions could evaluate their needs and request funding for appropriate projects to help maximize opportunities.

“It was an allocation of funding that allowed for a high degree of discretion,” said Rick Ellis, RTA’s director of transportation services. Once a need or certain opportunity was identified, a jurisdiction could then propose a specific project, and apply for funding. “That’s extremely valuable because it means there are very minimal preconceived notions. The funding gets to go where the problems or opportunities are, where it can make a difference and have the greatest effect.”

Once the RTA plan was approved, the RTA formed a Wildlife Linkages Subcommittee. Ellis said the wildlife category created new ways to partner with other groups because wildlife projects require side-by-side coordination between the various transportation departments, as well as the biologists/environmental specialists from organizations such as the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection and the state Game and Fish Department.

This style of working forged new relationships.

“Having dedicated funding through the RTA helped us get better at working together. Transportation professionals work together all the time, but the nature of wildlife-related projects involve a whole different cast of partners and stakeholders, and a different working environment as well,” Ellis said.

He also added that, “throughout each project, the biologists learned roadway engineering and the engineers learned about animal behavior and migratory patterns.”

Bringing experience to the next wildlife crossing

The longstanding partnership of the Tohono O’odham Nation, Arizona Department of Transportation, Arizona Department of Game and Fish and the Regional Transportation Authority is about to embark on a new wildlife project that will enable animals to safely cross over State Route 86, or Ajo Highway, near Kitt Peak.

The project entails building one or two wildlife overpasses near the northern terminus of the Baboquivari mountain range, which extends from Mexico to State Route 86, and features Kitt Peak Observatory at the northern end of the range. Often referred to as the Kitt Peak Linkage, the new overpasses, along with two existing wildlife underpasses, will help animals travel from the Baboquivari Mountains to the other sky islands in the desert between Tucson and Ajo.

RTA funding paid for the enhanced culverts that serve as wildlife underpasses in the initial phase of the project. The wildlife overpasses that will be constructed in 2023-2024 are the second phase of the project. Along with fencing to guide animals to the safe crossings, biologists and engineers expect the total wildlife infrastructure to reduce collisions by approximately 80% in the area.

As this upcoming project on SR 86 develops, the construction and collaboration lessons learned to date will ensure that the bighorn sheep, mountain lions, Sonora Desert tortoises and other smaller species get to and from the desert floor and the top of a mountain range that connects to Mexico, via safe and effective crossings.