Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Walkup was right, streetcar is a ‘game changer’


Tucson Mayor Robert Walkup has had trains on his brain for four years.

Ever since voters created the Regional Transportation Authority in 2006 the ever-optimistic Walkup has been tooting the horn of the modern streetcar.

He has said he believes the streetcar will be a “game changer” for downtown redevelopment.

It was hard to take him seriously, what with all the rotten Rio Nuevo news the past few years.

But darned if he wasn’t right.

The streetcar will connect the university area to downtown and the downtown to the West Side, a connection riven long ago by Interstate 10.

The RTA, which is supported by a half-cent sales tax, will pay for half of the streetcar’s estimated $150 million construction cost. The city was supposed to supply the rest and has been hoping for a federal appropriation to cover it.

Last week the feds ponied up the city’s half. Well, almost half, about $63 million, but it was enough for the RTA to announce that it will release its half now.

Which means construction can start this year and be done by the end of 2012.

But is it a “game changer?” It sure looks that way. Several developers have plans for significant commercial developments west of I-10 in the Rio Nuevo district, but their agreements with the city have been contingent upon completion of the streetcar. Walkup has said that he has commitments from developers for more than $500 million (yes, half a billion) in new development on the West Side.

The streetcar will make it easy for downtown visitors, especially conventioneers, to cross I-10 to visit their planned shops and restaurants.

Plus, the streetcar will travel what is developing into the city’s primary dining, nightlife and entertainment corridor: Congress Street downtown, Fourth Avenue, the UA’s Main Gate Square bordering University Boulevard, and to a lesser extent, Speedway north of the UA.

Besides the West Side developments, as soon as the U.S. Department of Transportation announced the $63 million for the streetcar, the Arizona Board of Regents issued a statement touting the streetcar and its importance to the UA and its intentions to put student housing downtown, which would be a further boon to downtown shops and restaurants.

And most importantly, if the streetcar spurs these commercial developments, the taxes collected from them will benefit Rio Nuevo, giving it more money to complete several stalled projects, among them the West Side museums, parks and historic gardens.

But while there were back pats all around Thursday at the ceremonial check presentation to the city, significant obstacles remain before any game gets changed downtown.

The RTA and fed money doesn’t pay for a vital bridge across the Santa Cruz River and if there’s no bridge, there’s no streetcar connection to the West Side. Rio Nuevo and the city need to pay for that and right now there’s a question as to whether Rio Nuevo has the money.

The state has taken over Rio Nuevo but has yet to appoint a new board to run the Multi Facilities District. And the state is requiring all Rio Nuevo funds be used to expand the Tucson Convention Center and build a connected hotel first before spending money on other projects.

And there’s a funding gap. Government construction bids have been coming in lately 20 and 30 percent below estimates, which means there’s a chance the streetcar can be built for less than the $150 million estimated in 2006. If not, the city or Rio Nuevo will need to come up with the money but the city’s broke.

All of these obstacles can be overcome, though. The city has the chance to finally turn Rio Nuevo around and put more than a decade of mismanagement and millions of wasted dollars behind it and achieve what it has wanted since the beginning – a revitalized downtown.

Success is within reach, Tucson. Don’t #@%& it up.

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