Fear and Loathing on Broadway

Mistrust stokes the road project's rumor mill

It was a jargon junkie's jamboree, chock-full with stakeholders, modalities, repurposing, way-finding, performance measures and facilitators galore.

Then came the consultants, no doubt relishing their fiscal empowerment in this project to redo—or rather, re-envision—a bustling stretch of Broadway Boulevard between Euclid Avenue and Country Club Road. Before shovel hits dirt, those meeting planners and roadway designers will have scored more than $2 million in public funds.

Among them is Phil Erickson of the Oakland, Calif.-based firm Community Design and Architecture. Erickson now held the stage, gazing upon the cheek-to-jowl Sept. 26 gathering of some 200 souls at the Sabbar Shrine Temple on South Tucson Boulevard. Below him stretched a phalanx of oblong tables, around which gathered a disparate muddling of local citizenry, from musicians, lawyers and teachers to restaurateurs and retirees.

Yet for all its preplanned conviviality, this confab had already been undercut by the same suspicions dogging the Broadway project from Day One, namely that Pima County and the city of Tucson, along with that amorphous beast known as the Regional Transportation Authority, are conniving to widen the road into an eight-lane torrent of cars, regardless of public opposition. This would mean ripping out scads of modernist and historic buildings, along with dashing the hopes of alt-transportation devotees.

The project itself comes from a 20-year, $2.1 billion regional transportation plan approved by voters in 2006. That vote not only earmarked funding for projects such as Broadway, but also created the RTA to oversee them.

But roughly a year after the Broadway project enlisted a volunteer citizens task force to hash over design plans, such mistrust has become manifest. Nearly two weeks before this meeting, for instance, dark rumors were already careening about. Chief among them was that the meeting's discussion points had already been rigged to lead to the conclusion that road widening was inevitable. A similar buzz had discussion facilitators conspiring in the alleged hustle.

City Councilman Steve Kozachik, whose Ward 6 encompasses the contested stretch of Broadway, had also heard the scuttlebutt. That prompted an email to the city's Broadway project manager, Jenn Toothaker Burdick. "I told her, if that's your game plan, you need to be pulling that off the table," Kozachik said. "These (meetings) have been going on for a year now, and will probably be going on for another year. One would hope they're not holding this open house with an agenda to try and shape the discussion."

Contacted the morning of the meeting, Toothaker Burdick denied any clandestine efforts at channeling opinion. "I don't understand where that's coming from," she said. "That's not in the materials we're presenting tonight. We have a range of options."

Erickson was subsequently plowing through those options, as 20 work groups huddled over maps, tables and graphs. "Many of your facilitators have already done the marking up of the tables while we've been doing this presentation," he said from the stage, "to facilitate what you're going to do now."

Among those observing all that facilitation was Jim DeGrood. He's the RTA's transportation director, and as smooth a bureaucratic operator as you'll find. Not surprisingly, some backroom chatter had DeGrood maneuvering to pack the meeting with fans of a far wider Broadway, counteracting opposition from area businesses and neighbors who want its width to remain unchanged.

DeGrood shrugged off that speculation. "But everyone does have an interest in Broadway," he said, "and everybody has a right to be heard."

Meanwhile, the work groups had finished ranking their top three "performance measures." Those assessments were gleaned from nine choices, which included the hard targets of easy bike access and mass transit, along with more esoteric desires such as "sense of place."

Erickson noted the findings from his podium. "We've definitely heard opinions of 'Do not widen the road,'" he said. "We've heard some people saying, 'Well, maybe there's a compromise.'...We're not necessarily just saying pick your favorite and the thing you want to see built, but to think a little bit strategically."

Nonetheless, many observers believe that political strategy is really driving the yearlong task force discussions, throughout which the RTA has hinted at withholding its $42 million share of funding should the project wander too far from the original plan.

If so, then this meeting might be the RTA's latest warning that road widening must be mandatory, if everything from buses to bike lanes are to be accommodated.

Still others considered it a victory of sorts—the fruits of relentless pressure by Kozachik, business owners and neighborhood activists aimed at forcing the RTA to abandon its obsession with the precise 2006 ballot language passed by voters. That measure mandated widening Broadway to a "6-lane arterial plus 2 dedicated bus lanes, bike lanes, and sidewalks."

Times change, they argue, and that once-impermeable vision has become unwieldy. Adding heft to their stance was the rather sudden introduction last fall of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "Guide to Sustainable Transportation Performance Measures" as part of the Broadway discussion.

All of this has chipped away at the RTA's stoic stance, according to one workshop participant who asked not to be named. "Now they're looking for a way out of their original plan," he said. "That's why they've opened it up to all of these alternatives."

It certainly suggests one reason why choices other than a massive, eight-lane road weren't already on the table a year ago, which might have saved a whole lot of time and teeth-gnashing.

But some say the gnashing was necessary. Sitting next to DeGrood was Tucson transportation director Daryl Cole, who came on the job in July 2012. Cole argued that the grinding year of meetings was indispensable if the city wanted to have any Broadway options. "To bring people together you have to go through a process," he said. "They have to get off the polar ends. Otherwise nothing gets built."

So how does that look from the trenches, among those who've sat through all the meetings, heard all the presentations, felt all the intense arm-twisting to get with the original plan?

I posed that question to task force member Colby Henley, who represents the Rincon Heights neighborhood just north of Broadway. "We spent the first few months setting a new paradigm," he answered, glancing around at the pulsing crowd. "There was the RTA ballot. We could have gone with it and we would have been at this point a year ago. But this task force said thank you very much but we're going to think outside of that predetermined path.

"We wanted to think about what we were doing here," he said, "change the way we're going about it, and take our time to do this right."

And so the facilitation continues, as performance measures turn to vision and empowerment. Or then again, maybe not.

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