On Track?

Is Rio Nuevo moving too slow with its downtown trolley plans?

While Tucson's Old Pueblo Trolley will see slight extensions over the next 18 months at both ends of its Fourth Avenue route, transportation supporters feel the city should put the trolley on a faster track through downtown, as suggested in the $750 million Rio Nuevo Master Plan's Transit Study.

"Even though the mayor, business owners and property owners downtown recognize that the trolley is one of the things that will make a huge economic success of Rio Nuevo, the city has it starting in 2010," says Steve Farley, co-founder of Tucsonans for Sensible Transportation. "So, we're pushing very hard to see that it gets moved up, and it looks like that will happen."

Congressman Raúl Grijalva, a trolley supporter, thinks more community support for the trolley will come.

"We go back and forth on the trolley, but if we're talking about revitalization, we're talking about quality of life and we're talking about business development," he says.

Trolley advocates note that models from other cities show downtown trolleys and streetcars have been catalysts for economic development, rather than simply sentimental novelties. Earlier this year, Portland's former transportation commissioner, Charlie Hales, gave a public presentation about how their 1-year-old trolley project resulted in a $1.6 billion of private downtown investment in its first year. The reason cited is that the trolley went up before the buildings, drawing the warm bodies future retailers wanted to reach.

"It's what we felt all along what ought to be done here," says Gene Caywood, CEO and chairman for the board of OPT.

Seven high-tech streetcars and two vintage trolleys run a two-mile loop from Northwest Portland to Portland State University, seven days a week.

Supporters say that an extended downtown trolley in Tucson would similarly aid downtown revitalization in numerous tangible ways, including improved attendance at museums, events and attractions, higher property values, reduced congestion and more retailers.

"What I noticed after Charlie did his presentation, particularly with our engineering staff, was you saw the light bulbs come on over their heads," says John Updike, Rio Nuevo Project Manager. "So, I think we have some new advocates internally, as well as externally."

Celebrating their 10th anniversary, OPT's two trolley cars currently clank along the 1.4 miles between North Fourth Avenue and UA's Main Gate on weekends only. The proposed extension would allow daily operation all the way to the Rio Nuevo developments west of Interstate 10, every day at 15-minute intervals.

But the total Rio Nuevo extension would cost some $22 million for such daily service and would require six trolleys--with six others for backup--and cost $600,000 annually to operate.

Still, the current expansion is beginning--sort of.

The trolley is being extended at the UA Main Gate area, where it will loop around Park Avenue to Second Street and return to University Boulevard via Tyndall Avenue. Caywood hopes the work will be done by late next year.

The city is also building a new Fourth Avenue underpass, as part of a $16.6 million project. The existing underpass, built in 1916, will be converted to pedestrian and bicycle use, while the new structure will accommodate auto traffic and the trolley. The trolley will then turn onto Toole Avenue with a turn-around near the depot. That segment should be completed by 2005, but beyond, that the project is up in the air.

"We're not proposing it go down Congress Street; this gives us the most flexibility and lets us move it along any number of potential alignments as it heads west," says Updike.

The downtown route, and other issues, will be hammered out at a May 29 public meeting downtown.

"We know where it enters downtown from the east; we know were we need to get to at the Cultural Park west of the river, but there's some question on how we get between the two locations," says Updike. "We hope to come out of that meeting with an alignment consensus."

"I think the downtown-to-the Convention Center part may get accelerated, and the rest of it may be in that 10-year time period," says Caywood.

Despite the wants of downtown merchants, there are other reasons the trolley is stalled.

"The greatest limiting factor is funds, plain and simple," says Updike.

"There's no money in the Rio Nuevo funds to do the trolley at all," says Caywood. "I think now that Mr. Hales has been here, there has been kind of a re-thinking of that."

Such construction funds normally come from the federal government, which funds highways and transit. The city is responsible for jumping through the hoops for those federal funds and it's been slow in coming.

But this lack of funding for the trolley may soon change--one way or another.

Federal legislation was introduced in April, co-sponsored by Grijalva, which seeks funds for start-up and revitalization of urban streetcar projects.

"It's to establish a pilot grant program with the intention to provide assistance for streetcar development and, in our situation in Tucson, revitalization," says Grijalva.

An optimistic Caywood adds, "The fact that this would be a new program, there are probably very few cities that have a trolley line partly finished and would be standing in line to get that money."

But that funding is limited to $15 million per city, some $7 million short of the total downtown expansion cost.

With that in mind, Citizens for a Sensible Transportation Solution is ready to place a plan on the November 2003 ballot--the Comprehensive Transportation Initiative--which would fund a wide variety of transportation projects, including the trolley (See "Expect Delays," page 12).

"If our prop passes in November, this trolley is going ahead and it won't require any federal funding," says Farley, who notes they are "very close" to getting the 12,777 signatures needed by July 3 to place the transportation prop on the November ballot.

"I think there has always been a lot of interest in better mass transit downtown by the stake holders," says Updike. "But it doesn't completely solve the automobile problem. People are still going to drive their car."

"It's going to be a mix of solutions," adds Updike. "There's no silver bullets downtown, that's the only given. It would be easy if there were."