[Ed. Note: Johanna Willett is a University of Arizona journalism student. She wrote this story as her end-of-term project for her Reporting Public Affairs class taught by TucsonCitizen.com site administrator Mark B. Evans]
Flying dirt and emerging orange cones in March will signal the official start of construction on the modern streetcar route and a continuing balancing act between revitalizing the city and encouraging tradition.
The streetcar will connect the Arizona Health Sciences Center with Fourth Avenue, downtown Tucson and the development area west of Interstate 10. The University of Arizona is expected to supply a steady flow of riders between campus and the downtown area, providing an economic boost to downtown. The streetcar should open for public use in 2013.
Official construction on the route was bumped back from the start of the New Year to March so that potential contractors could prepare their bids. Overall, the delays should not impact the project significantly.
Because the streetcar uses major streets such as Congress Street, its operation has forced several Tucson events to accommodate it.
Large parades such as the 21-year-old All Souls Procession will have to modify routes away from the streetcar. The procession draws about 20,000 people each year and participants make their way through downtown, honoring and celebrating deceased loved ones.
The streetcar also will require Tucson Weekly’s Club Crawl music festival to make some changes, eliminating closing off Congress Street the day of the event. Instead of filling the street with stages for the dozens of local and national musicians and bands that serenade bar hoppers, the streetcar route will force the event to slip stages in club-side nooks and crannies so the streetcar can run on a continuous schedule.
“I’m actually excited about Club Crawl becoming more of a true pub crawl than just a festival,” said Todd Hanley, the general manager at Hotel Congress. “It will create pockets for people to go to instead of a big, outdoor area.”
Jim Glock, Tucson’s former transportation director, said he believes that establishing public credibility in a reliable transit system that arrives every 10 minutes will make these changes worth it.
“The goal is to keep the streetcar operating during events and get people to them,” Glock said. “I am cautiously optimistic that we can accommodate events and use the streetcar to get patrons down there.”
The city also hopes to work with the Old Pueblo Trolley, which stopped running at the end of October to prepare for construction of the new streetcar tracks. The streetcar will span the trolley’s traditional route, and the two transit systems may share a track when the streetcar opens in 2013.
Tom Gorman, the vice president of the Old Pueblo Trolley’s street operations division, said he hopes that the trolley can meet the new safety regulations after construction in order to resume the trek it has made up and down University Boulevard and Fourth Avenue since 1993, according to the trolley’s web site.
Although he supports the streetcar, Gorman also said he values the historic tradition behind the Old Pueblo Trolley.
“Some people don’t give a damn about history, but for some it’s a little sense of where things were and where they came from,” Gorman said. “We’re not trying to throw everyone back. We’re trying to remind people that we’ve come a long way.”
Shellie Ginn, the city’s project manager for the streetcar, said she understands the importance of history and tradition but admits the trolley may have a difficult time meeting the safety requirements necessary to operate.
With $63 million of funding for the $196.8 million project coming from stimulus money through Federal Transit Administration TIGER grants, all elements of the system must meet safety requirements proposed by the city and federally approved. This includes Old Pueblo Trolley.
“We want to help Old Pueblo Trolley to see if they can run again,” Ginn said. “They might run weekend and special event services. The streetcar focuses on transportation, but the Old Pueblo Trolley is more for tourists.”
Ginn says the city has also begun working with other Tucson traditions, advising alternative parade routes that move away from the tracks and the overhead, electric wires.
“We can’t just close down a street where the streetcar line is,” Ginn said. “We’re trying to be really sensitive to the needs of Tucson and the tradition of the city.”
The biannual Fourth Avenue Street Fair is the only event not moving for the streetcar, instead the streetcar is accommodating the fair.
The fair attracts anywhere from 200,000 to 350,000 visitors, according to the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association website. Over 400 vendors peddle their artistic handiwork, and dozens of food options satisfy the palate. Instead of running through Fourth Avenue during fair days, the streetcar will stop at both ends of the street—a deal worked out between the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association and the city.“It’s a 42-year-old event,” said John Sedwick, the executive director of the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association. “The street fair is a community event. We went through many meetings in order to compromise with the city.”
The streetcar will not end Tucson traditions; it will work with them, revitalizing downtown by framing the city’s heritage in a context of progress, Ginn said.
“For decades, downtown has been languishing for want of success and contribution to the city,” said former Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup. “This is a single project that gives hope to the future.”
As early as the 1980s, Tucson has explored light rail and streetcar systems, Glock said. When the FTA approved the project in 2009 and awarded the city a grant in 2010, a rail system became a reality for Tucson.
“There’s always that perception that the project is never going to happen,” said Carlos de Leon, the Regional Transportation Authority’s director of transit services. “A lot of people say, ‘Show me. I don’t believe it.’ They don’t believe it until they see streets torn up.” The RTA co-manages the streetcar project with the city..
An intergovernmental agreement between RTA and the city promises to provide any additional funding needed beyond the estimated amount in order to make the streetcar a reality. The city also took responsibility for securing funds for “project costs in excess of RTA funds contributed to the project,” according to the funding agreement, signed in May 2010.
Although the city continues to apply for grants to fulfill its end of the deal, the project can continue full-steam ahead.
For businesses along the streetcar route, imminent construction will bring a headache that can threaten to overshadow the excitement of increased traffic.
In order to help businesses cope with limited access and fewer visitors, RTA offers free consultation through MainStreet Business Assistance.
“The biggest challenge is not the project, but the public perception of the project,” said Britton Dornquast, the program manager for MainStreet Business Assistance. “A lot of people avoid an area when they see cones.”
On Fourth Avenue, the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association plans to turn construction into a positive experience. The delayed start to construction will not impact the street fair, Sedwick said.
“We’re going to try and make construction fun rather than an obstacle,” Sedwick said. “We’re going to draw people down here with contests and takes pictures of the construction as it happens.”
Surviving construction requires “turning off victim mode,” Dornquast said.
“Focus on what you can control, because you have zero power over the fact that it rained and construction is a mud hole,” Dornquast said. “Crap happens during construction. Screaming at the construction workers gets you nowhere.”
While construction will affect some access to business on the streetcar route, many of the businesses downtown and along Fourth Avenue and University Boulevard already rely heavily on pedestrian traffic. As sidewalks will remain primarily open, people can continue to park and walk, Dornquast said.
When the streetcar opens, those along the route will see the payoff for enduring construction.
“[Tucson residents] can park in a garage at one end and take the streetcar to any destination along that route,” said Donovan Durband the former director of Downtown Tucson Alliance and current staff for Councilman Steve Kozachik. “The streetcar would become part of a multi-modal trip, with driving and walking as well as streetcar-riding.”
For much of Tucson, the streetcar won’t be part of daily life.
“People have questioned why we put the route where we did,” Walkup said. “They’re upset that it’s not in their own backyards.”
To start, students and professionals will be the primary users of the streetcar, until the rest of the city becomes accustomed to the value of parking in one garage for multiple destinations, de Leon said.
“The streetcar is a connector to make people feel like they can get places both physically and mentally,” Ginn said. “There are psychological barriers like the railroad by Fourth Avenue, the Interstate-10, and Santa Cruz River. These make people feel like parts of the city are inaccessible.”
Simply connecting the University of Arizona to the downtown area opens up a significant portion of the city to otherwise trapped students.
“The two busiest places in the whole city are campus and downtown,” said David Heineking, the UA director of parking and transportation. “The university needs to do our part to make Tucson a great place to live, and we can do that by making downtown accessible. Faculty and students will be able to swing down for some lunch or drinks.”
The streetcar will run through the UA campus, through the Warren Avenue underpass and down Second Street. This connection allows a physically landlocked university to expand to other areas of Tucson, incorporating its academic programs, student housing, and general presence into the community.
“My belief is that this is a real, economic stimulus,” said Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. “People want to live and work close to the route, and this was the shot in the arm to get student housing happening downtown.”
Although the final plans for this phase of the streetcar project were just completed, future plans reach as far as 2040, including extensions to other areas of Tucson such as the Tucson Mall and Tucson International Airport, said de Leon.
Some Tucsonans still haven’t bought into the belief of this initial route as the city’s lifesaver.
“There is a lot of skepticism outside of the downtown/UA area that this may be an expensive boondoggle that no one will ride,” Durband said.
Shaun McClusky, an early Republican contender in the recent mayoral race and a Tucson realtor, believes the streetcar is an “exorbitant cost” destined to be a “colossal failure.”
“Right now, I don’t think the city is doing anything to encourage proactive growth around the route,” McClusky said. “They’ll claim it’s the hardship of the economic times, but if not now, when? What will drive people to use the trolley if there’s nothing down there?”
McClusky only sees the benefit for drunken college students and the businesses they patronize.
“Some entrepreneurs are fighting the good fight down there, and they’re winning,” McClusky said. “It’s voter-mandated and voter-approved. Once you get that federal money, you can’t unwind. This is an avalanche that is already moving forward, so you have to create the hype.”
De Leon sees it instead as depicting a realistic and hopeful future.
“Projects are painful; there’s no way around it,” de Leon said. “After it opens, though, people see the value and forget the construction. They start thinking about extensions.”