Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Sun Link (modern streetcar) – boon or boondoggle?

Well, there’s no going back now.

Tucson’s exalted leaders and other assorted muckety mucks on Thursday officially celebrated the start of construction of the modern streetcar, now called Sun Link. The four-mile streetcar line stretches west from University Medical Center, through the university and Main Gate Square, turning south on Fourth Avenue to Congress, then west through downtown, meandering past the convention center to Cushing Street where it goes under the freeway and over the river to the Great Dirt Lot.

The $200 million project will either be one of the greatest boons to Tucson’s economic development or its biggest boondoggle. Which will depend on how Tucson markets it and pays for its operation.

In the six years since voters approved it as part of the Regional Transportation Authority roads and transit package, most of the energy has been spent on securing the money to build it, plus design and engineering. That really is what they were celebrating Thursday.

But now comes the hard part – getting people to ride it. Most of the assumption down at city hall and the RTA has been akin to Bob Walkup strolling through a cornfield and hearing a disembodied voice whisper, “If you build it, they will ride.”

At open houses held in the weeks preceding yesterday’s hugfest, business owners affected by the construction asked planners what their estimates were for ridership. The confident answers of packed streetcars were based on a few assumptions – about 100,000 people live within a mile of the route and many work at the UA or downtown; there are nearly 10,000 students living on the UA campus, many without cars; and that nearly all of the region’s big festivals and entertainment events are held along the route.

Last week, those assumptions were given a bit of a boost when it was announced that developers and entrepreneurs have invested nearly $300 million in properties along the line. Which means those business leaders are betting on the side of boon rather than boondoggle.

And that may just be the beginning, if NIMBYs don’t sink the West University project along Euclid Avenue, if the Great Dirt Lot finally gets developed, if Rio Nuevo finally finishes its cultural and historic projects and renovates the TCC with a connected hotel, then over the next 10 to 15 years the streetcar could be the linchpin in another half billion to a billion dollars of economic development along its route.

But for that to happen, people have to ride it and the city has to pay for its annual maintenance and operation. To prevent it being a giant vacuum attached to the city budget sucking up millions of dollars, the city needs people packing streetcars and paying fares. Yet the latter will be a considerable drag on the former.

As of now, the city is planning on charging a fare the same as a Sun Tran bus. That’s treating the streetcar like it’s just a bus, albeit an electric one with steel wheels.

The city has about a year before Sun Link boards its first passenger. In that time, it must work with the business community betting on and benefiting from the streetcar to find a dedicated funding source to underwrite its operation.

There are any number of ideas the city can use to fund Sun Link including a property tax or sales tax overlay district (both of which would probably require a vote or possibly some kind of legislation), parking garage and meter fees, a voluntary program like the existing Business Improvement District, UA sports, TCC and Music Hall ticket surcharges, increasing the bed tax, sponsorships, advertising or a combination of any or all of the preceding. There also are other ideas that many other cities have used to subsidize free public transportation in key entertainment districts that Sun Link can steal.

The key is free fares on the weekends so that the UA and downtown events are linked to UA and downtown shopping and dining. Between UA sports, Centennial Hall, the TCC, the Music Hall, The Fox Theatre, the Rialto, weekend and seasonal events and festivals and the renaissance of downtown, UA and Fourth Avenue dining there are thousands of potential weekend riders for Sun Link. Make them pay a fare and many if not most may be disinclined to ride.

Parking once and using a free Sun Link to easily move around the UA, Fourth Avenue and downtown entertainment and dining district is the key to Sun Link’s success and downtown’s ultimate goal of revitalization.

Sun Link can’t be just a funny looking bus. It has to be special. It has to be fast, convenient and cool. And it has to be free for riders, at least on the weekends.

Treat it like a bus and you’ll put it firmly on the road to boondoogle.

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