Last Mile Limbo

The final leg of the Barraza-Aviation Parkway still awaits final blessing.

No road building project in the long annals of Tucson history has had a more complicated birth than the last mile of the Barraza-Aviation Parkway. Conceived 20 years ago, the downtown project has been in labor for almost a decade with still no umbilical cord-cutting in sight.

One of the reasons for this difficult delivery is the lack of people who currently use the existing high-speed roadway southeast of Broadway Boulevard. It was planned to handle 40,000-60,000 cars per day, but a traffic count taken last year showed only 11,500 on the parkway at Broadway. That is fewer than use Tucson Boulevard through the Sam Hughes neighborhood.

While traffic on Barraza-Aviation does reach higher levels further east, getting to almost 20,000 cars a day near Golf Links, the amount of traffic on its western leg has hardly increased since the parkway opened almost five years ago.

Despite that, city transportation planners continue to insist the roadway must be built across the northern arc of downtown from Broadway to St. Mary's Road and I-10.

Proposed in the 1980s as a depressed parkway that would cost close to $200 million, the last mile is now planned to weave spaghetti-like through downtown at ground level. The price of the current project will be roughly $120 million. Among the casualties of construction will be a dozen historic warehouses and both the Sixth Avenue underpass built in 1930 and the one at Stone Avenue, which opened with great fanfare in late 1935.

Tucson officials claim the 25-year, seven-phase parkway project is needed to help revitalize the city core, to get people to the proposed Rio Nuevo development, and to finally allow the Fourth Avenue trolley to enter downtown. But over time the rationale behind the last section of Barraza-Aviation has changed more often than a chameleon's color.

During the 1980s, supporters of the project said it was essential to accommodate all the job growth planned for the central city. When that didn't happen, they argued the last mile was needed to help bring people to the area for entertainment activities.

Because there isn't that much entertainment downtown now, parkway proponents currently point to the proposed development at Rio Nuevo as the reason the road must be finished. What they don't explain is why someone going to Rio Nuevo, which will be centered at Congress Street and I-10, would use the parkway, since they would be going out of their way if they did.

Tony Paez, who stepped down recently as Tucson's transportation director, said a few weeks ago of Barraza-Aviation, "Traffic on the parkway started real slowly, but I see more and more cars on it. It is not a known advantage to use by most people and I think the lack of the last mile holds people up from using the rest of it. The [last-mile] project is one of the department's highest priorities. It will be a major feeder to Rio Nuevo, and I still feel the last mile of Barraza-Aviation is a key to making a great downtown."

Retiring Ward 3 City Councilman Jerry Anderson has a different perspective. "I certainly don't see many cars backed up at Broadway and Barraza-Aviation," he says. "The numbers just don't add up. It may be time to revisit the whole thing and do it on a smaller scale."

Despite the lack of any substantial traffic on the existing parkway, the city is now engaged in a multi-pronged effort to implement the costly first section of the last-mile project while also preparing for later phases. That is being done even though the money programmed for this work could instead be used by a cash-strapped Tucson for other roadway improvements.

On August 6 the City Council is expected to discuss acquiring the downtown Greyhound Bus building, a structure that must be razed in order for the last mile's Fourth Avenue phase to be completed. Negotiations over the transfer of the building have been far apart on price, so it is likely that the city will condemn the property. Once that is accomplished, the present location will continue to be used until a new building for Greyhound can be built near Sixth and Toole avenues by the end of 2003.

At the same time, according to project manager Armando Monteverde, plans are still moving forward to get underway late next year on the last mile's often-delayed first phase. This will include the construction of a new Fourth Avenue automobile/trolley underpass and the reconstruction of the existing 1916 tunnel for use by pedestrians and bicyclists. By the time this phase is completed 18 or so months later, dual tracks for the trolley should be in place along Toole, pointed toward the distant Rio Nuevo site.

"The current cost estimate for this phase is $14 million," Monteverde says, "and we have a $10.4 million loan from the state to build it. So we'll have to reapply for additional money to pay for the balance." These loan funds will then be repaid over several years from the city's gas tax revenues.

The scheduling of later phases of the last mile project depends on a drainage study now underway. The recommendations of this $400,000 report will help determine which direction the future work will proceed--following the decade-old idea to move east to west, or going the opposite way. The study, expected to be completed by December, will also help define how the $20 million needed to realign the underground Tucson Arroyo, which cuts across the path of the proposed parkway, will be used.

Also ongoing are negotiations between the city and the Arizona Department of Transportation over almost two dozen historic warehouses located in the path of the last mile of parkway. ADOT bought most of these buildings in the 1980s and now wants to turn them over to the city.

Local officials recently made a proposal to ADOT and are awaiting a response. This potential transfer, however, has some tenants and others interested in preserving the old buildings very nervous. They fear the city will require the artists who currently occupy the buildings to make expensive renovations, something many of them can't afford. Other artists, who want to purchase the publicly owned buildings they now lease as studios and put them back on the tax rolls, are afraid the city won't sell, but instead hold on to all the warehouses, just in the remote possibility they will need to be demolished someday to make room for the parkway.

Finally, the city is continuing with plans to make both Sixth and Stone avenues two-way between Congress and 18th Street. According to Anne Lawrence of the Armory Park Neighborhood Association, this change is intended to encourage traffic on the streets to be more neighborhood friendly while improving access to local businesses.

The transition will be accomplished by converting the existing southbound Stone Avenue into a four-lane, two-way street that prohibits some left-hand turns. Currently a three-lane northbound street, Sixth Avenue will become one lane in each direction with a center turn lane and outside bike lanes. At the five points intersection where Stone, Sixth and 18th Street now come together, a traffic island will encourage northbound traffic on Sixth Avenue to use Stone.

While discussions are underway to eventually make Sixth Avenue two-way further north between Congress and Drachman Street, the downtown change should occur next year. When it happens, it will partially return traffic in the area to the way it was from the 1930s to the 1960s, when Stone was part of US Highway 80.

These traffic changes, along with extending the current Sixth Avenue landscaping project to 18th Street, will cost about $1.4 million. The total bill for the last mile of Barraza-Aviation, however, could be almost 100 times that amount.

So when the City Council complains about not having enough money to address the community's existing traffic problems, remember the proposed last mile of the parkway. Because that is where a large portion of Tucson's future road building money is going to be spent.

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