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City Council likes pitch to make Tucson inland port, transportation hub

The seaport of Guaymas, Son., shown in a 2005 file photo, could be an important part of making Tucson an international port.

The seaport of Guaymas, Son., shown in a 2005 file photo, could be an important part of making Tucson an international port.

Tucson could be a major international transportation hub, but if the city’s serious about that, there should be one person in charge, the region’s economic development group said in a recent report.

Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities, or TREO, advocates the hiring of an inland port director and creating a new organization whose mission would be to advance “Puerto Nuevo.”

The director’s salary would be paid by business contributions, said Sarah Smallhouse, who headed the advisory committee that helped write the report. “Think of it sort of like a trade association,” she said.

The idea – in the works since 2005 – is to use Tucson’s logistically convenient geography to its economic advantage.

The city sits at the intersection of east-west and north-south interstates I-10 and I-19 and a similar convergence of rail lines.

About 72,000 of the city’s jobs are already in the transportation sector, the report states.

But to be a major player, TREO says, the city needs to look at improvements related to to trucking, air freight and ocean access.

Key components of TREO’s plan involve building an I-10 bypass, setting up a larger rail yard near Marana and improving infrastructure connecting Tucson to the seaport of Guaymas, Mexico.

The report also recommends the development of food processing plants because of the tons of Mexican agricultural products shipped daily through the city.

Most of the related development is anticipated along Valencia Road.

Smallhouse said the project is realistic despite the recession and should be the domain of business owners, not government.

A paid director could coordinate the work of a volunteer board, she said, characterizing the port as likely more “virtual” or “promotional” than “bricks and mortar.”

That was music to the ears of the City Council, in the midst of a budget process that will undoubtedly involve millions of dollars in both spending cuts and new taxes.

“I think this is really wonderful,” Councilman Steve Leal said. “There could be all kinds of jobs in this.”

Laura Shaw, TREO’s vice president of corporate and community affairs, said the process of hiring an inland port director had not yet begun.

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