Citizen Staff Writer
This native Tucsonan rarely suffers from Phoenix envy. But I felt a pang of it earlier this month while reading an Arizona Republic story about the Valley’s near ready-to-roll light rail system.
In just three months, the $1.2 billion system will become operational with a first-phase route of 20 miles of track running through Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa.
You? Me? The rest of metropolitan Tucson? We’ll still be stuck in our cars at 5:23 p.m. at Grant Road and Campbell Avenue, sitting through the red light for the third time, leaving us plenty of time to contemplate how the once lovely Old Pueblo devolved into the Old Pothole.
Truly bummed by the signs of progress being shown by our neighbor to the north and, more to the point, by our corresponding lack of progress, I sought out the wisdom and commiseration of state Rep. Steve Farley, Tucson’s leading (only?) transportation visionary.
The Tucson Democrat, however, was upbeat.
“The good news is that we can still do this,” Farley said. “I don’t think that we’re that far behind Phoenix. We are actually in good shape in that we didn’t go ahead and build miles and miles of freeway, which are quickly becoming too expensive to be used.”
He reminded me that Tucsonans approved, as part of the 2006 Regional Transportation Authority plan, our own version of a light rail transit system.
The RTA plan, you may recall, included a $150 million modern streetcar system. When operational, the streetcar service will run on a four-mile route that will start near University Medical Center, pass through the University of Arizona campus, traverse University Boulevard and Fourth Avenue, go through the Fourth Avenue underpass, and head west on Congress Street, ending on the west side of downtown.
The project is awaiting $75 million in federal funding, which has been approved by Congress but not yet appropriated. If all goes well, the goal is to have the system completed by 2011.
Now, admittedly, this is light rail on a small scale – light rail-lite. But it might help to think of it as a pilot program, a test of light rail for Tucson.
And Farley is certain the system will be a huge success. Once Tucsonans see how light rail helps create a great, livable urban community and how it fits into smart growth, they will want more of it, he said.
“Once people see it moving . . . that will free up a lot of doubts,” said Farley, who spearheaded an unsuccessful grassroots effort to persuade local voters to pay for light rail in 2003.
Farley said what evolves here shouldn’t and probably won’t mirror the Phoenix version of light rail. He envisions a system that would combine modern streetcars circulating in the city core with a commuter system linking the city core to the outlying towns and cities.
“I think we will be able to grow in our own way,” he said.
And the benefit of having Phoenix taking the plunge first is we can learn from its mistakes and successes, he said.
Light rail gets people out of their cars and into a clean and efficient form of transportation, all while reducing congestion on the roadways. As an added benefit, light rail encourages economic development activity.
The Phoenix light rail system, before taking on a single passenger, already has resulted in $6 billion in private development – lofts and mixed-used retail – along the tracks, Farley said.
Tucson seems to operate under the fear that if you build “it” – “it” being anything that involves planning for inevitable growth – “they” will come.
As we keep an eye on Phoenix’s movement into the 21st century and the slower progress on our own scaled-down system, we’d be wise not to forget that we didn’t build “it” and “they” came anyway.
Anne T. Denogean can be reached at 573-4582 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767. Her columns run Tuesdays and Fridays.
ANNE T. DENOGEAN