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Is light rail in Tucson's future?

Steve Farley has picked a tough fight: convincing the community that a light-rail transit system is a viable alternative in Tucson.

But Farley, a graphic designer who created the tilework of historic photos greeting commuters at downtown's Broadway underpass, is an articulate and energetic advocate for his cause. Since he co-founded Tucsonans for Sensible Transportation last summer, the group has made dozens of presentations, luring nearly 500 people to sign on in support of exploring a rail system.

Farley says light rail is a sexy transit alternative to an expanded bus system. "Light rail increases ridership among people who normally would not take transit at all," says Farley. "You increase the constituency for transit and take more cars off the road."

Along with the public presentations, Citizens for Sensible Transportation has put up a snazzy Web site (www.tucsonlightrail.org) and assembled a plan for a 13-mile light-rail system that would tie into a better bus system. One train would run east from downtown's Ronstadt Transit Center, moving along Sixth Street past the University of Arizona before jogging south down Country Club Road over to Broadway Boulevard, where it would continue east past both major malls all the way to Prudence Road. The second route would travel south along South Sixth Avenue to the Laos Transit Center at Irvington Road.

The rail line would be supplemented with an improved bus system that would include shorter waits at stops for riders and longer hours of operation.

Farley estimates capital costs for the initial rail line at roughly $35 million per mile, for a total cost of $455 million. His group hopes to tap the federal government for 60 percent of the cost. To cover the rest of the capital costs and the operating expenses for the line and the bus system, Farley estimates the city will need to find $36 million a year for the next two decades.

Farley has a long list of potential funding mechanisms for the local share, such as impact fees, payroll taxes, a gasoline sales tax and the sale of mandatory transit passes to all Tucson Water households.

For all of the group's recent lobbying, light rail remains on the fringes of local transportation planning. An 18-mile, $588 million system, traveling along Broadway Boulevard, South Sixth Avenue and Oracle Road, is contained within the Pima Association of Government's 25-year transportation plan, but it's grouped among projects that remain out of financial reach even with hikes in sales taxes, gas taxes and impact fees.

It's been at least 10 years since the city has seriously studied light rail, but in that decade at least 20 western communities have embraced rail lines, including Denver, Dallas and Salt Lake City.

In those cities, light rail has exceeded ridership projections. According to press reports, an average of 20,000 people ride Salt Lake City's rail line on weekdays. In Denver, the new rail line carries up to 14,000 people on weekdays.

Last year, Phoenix voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax for public transit that's being used to build a light-rail line across Phoenix and Tempe. Just last week, Glendale voters approved a half-cent sales tax for transportation, with most of the money targeted for better bus service. The money will also allow Glendale to link to the Phoenix rail line in about a decade.

"It seems embarrassing that Phoenix did it, and we aren't even talking about it," says Farley.

It remains to be seen if the citizen committee examining transportation options will support a light-rail option. The committee is expected to issue recommendations to the council next month. The council leadership hopes to assemble a proposal for a half-cent hike in the city sales tax dedicated to transportation improvements.

Farley says a light-rail program is a better long-term investment than building a freeway or lining arterial streets with grade-separated intersections, another popular alternative among local transportation planners.

"Unless you do a whole series of GSIs at $30 million a pop, you just move the problem one intersection over," Farley says. "It's insanity. For that price, you could get an excellent light rail line."

More by Jim Nintzel

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