Tucson, Ariz., banks on a streetcar line to spur development

09/16/2013 6:24 PM

09/17/2013 5:51 PM

Tucson, Ariz., is not a city you would ordinarily associate with progressive planning, but when it comes to rail transit, the desert community better known for retirees is guiding its downtown’s development with a new streetcar line.

I stumbled on the 3.9-mile Sun Link project by accident last week on a road trip visiting relatives there. On the way to the Surly Wench saloon for a couple of pints with cousins, we came across a tow truck pulling a streetcar down the city’s entertainment strip, Fourth Avenue.

Was it broken down? Decidedly not, one put-out technician told us.

What we were witnessing was the first “dynamic-envelope” test of a streetcar project almost 10 years in the making. It was a non-powered pull-through to make sure the new tracks, stations and other infrastructure worked correctly.

In fact, local TV was covering this milestone in the history of the $196 million project.

Sun Link began in the ashes of a failed metropolitan transportation initiative rejected in the early 2000s. Sound familiar, Kansas City?

“While the voters turned down the transportation initiative, there was huge support for transit in the downtown area,” said Shelly Ginn, project manager for Sun Link (www.tucsonstreetcar.com). “That led to an analysis to see how we could connect our major activity centers.”

A liaison group was established with representatives from the business community, the University of Arizona, historic preservationists and others. They agreed that a streetcar line made sense that linked the campus, which borders downtown, through the central business district to a new development area on the west side.

In 2006, the project got a huge boost when Tucson voters approved a half-cent sales tax for the Regional Transportation Authority that yielded $87.7 million for the streetcar plan. That vote of confidence was instrumental to Tucson receiving a $63 million federal grant in 2010 under the TIGER program, for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery.

In comparison, Kansas City streetcar backers were ecstatic two weeks ago when the feds awarded a $20 million TIGER grant for the 2-mile system planned here between Crown Center and the River Market.

Ginn said the Tuscon project, like all rail-transit endeavors, was being justified for its development potential, not simply for moving people around. The Sun Link line isn’t scheduled to start carrying passengers until next summer, but it already has stimulated an estimated $800 million in public and private investment along the route.

“The big push was to revitalize downtown, and transportation-oriented development was important,” she said. “We had watched Portland as they went through their economic development. Everything we hoped would happen is occurring.”

Interestingly, as opposed to Kansas City where freeways are abundant, the Tucson area has resisted building super-highways. Interstate 10 is the only major freeway crossing the metro. But the streetcar was another notion.

“We’re trying to find other ways to move people,” Ginn said.

The city of Tucson is slightly larger than Kansas City, Mo., about 525,000 people versus 475,000. But the metro area is half our size, with about 1 million residents.

So how did Tucson succeed in building a streetcar almost twice as long and sooner than the one planned here?


“If you’re committed to a streetcar, don’t give up,” Ginn advised. “There’s always a way. It will happen.”


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