Pricey Passageway

Downtowners prepare to celebrate the completion of the new Fourth Avenue underpass

Sold in part as a cheaper alternative to saving the historic Fourth Avenue underpass, a new structure will open on Aug. 20 after a lengthy construction period—and after far more was spent on the new underpass than anticipated.

Initial plans called for the old underpass to be restored, with a new subway built next to it to accommodate the historic trolley. But a 2005 bid of $31 million helped doom that idea.

A single, wider underpass was then proposed, with an estimated construction price tag of $26 million. Over time, according to figures supplied by Jim Glock, Tucson's director of transportation, the total cost of the project has ballooned to almost $46 million.

This figure includes $31 million for construction, $7.5 million in design work, $2.3 million for project management, and $5.2 million for "incidental" costs like artwork.

Glock says the original estimate did not include $1.8 million in spending on electrical and other work needed by the trolley and the proposed modern streetcar, $1 million for water-line relocations, and money for landscaping.

To pay the bill, at least $40 million in regional gas-tax funds will be used.

"There won't be any Rio Nuevo, local-gas-tax or general-fund money involved," Glock promises.

The final cost of the project isn't the only thing that will leave a bitter taste in some people's months.

"It's interesting that date was chosen to celebrate the destruction of the original underpass," remarks Sharon Chadwick, a member of the Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission. "That date"—Aug. 20—is Tucson's birthday.

Even though the first underpass was built in 1916, the commission voted to endorse its execution, with Chadwick and a few others dissenting.

The hard lesson to be learned from this loss, Chadwick says, is simple: "It shows we have to continue to fight to save every individual (historic) structure. Nothing is safe."

Glock sees the situation differently.

"I look forward to it being done and re-establishing the connection between Fourth Avenue and Congress Street," he says.

As for his overall view of the end result, Glock is candid: "Given the multiplicity of input," he says of the public's ongoing involvement in the design process, "I think it turned out reasonably well. It's more aesthetic than warranted, given all the folks involved."

Local historian Ken Scoville disagrees. He thinks the design is a disappointment.

"It would have been nice to have something that celebrated the period (when the original underpass was built)," Scoville observes. A more fanciful structure, Scoville believes, would have brought people downtown to see it. "Instead, we got something that looks like it could be anyplace in the world."

Going through the former Fourth Avenue underpass was always a mysterious adventure. Sometimes scary, sometimes serene, it was like descending steep steps into a dimly lit basement of an old house. That underpass was full of architectural curiosities, as well as some fascinating quirks. For those taking the time to look, it held a lot of interest.

During a recent walking tour—that wound among scurrying workers—the new underpass left a much different impression on me. In some ways, it's similar to a great room in a suburban house: There's lots of space, but little character.

There are some pleasing touches, like rusted metal railings and scored columns. (Much of the anticipated artwork still was not in place as of my tour last week.)

In addition to significantly wider traffic lanes and sidewalks, the new concrete structure will contain much better lighting, along with a pedestrian bridge, an elevator and a staircase on its southern end.

Even though it may be difficult to maintain, a water feature was included on the south end. "A water feature has consistently been raised in the discussions," Glock says of this idea, "and we acquiesced to it."

Jim Campbell wants to build new housing adjacent to the southern end of the underpass, and was one of the driving forces behind the replacement structure.

"I like the design," he says. "But I tend to like a rusted look."

Campbell adds that he believes the dual-underpass approach would have been a "mishmash of two (designs)."

As for what completing the new underpass will accomplish, Campbell says: "It will lead to more likelihood for success in the near future. It will do wonders for that part of downtown."

While he isn't quite that enthusiastic, David Slutes is grateful the project is nearing completion. Slutes, the entertainment director at the Hotel Congress, says his business has had a great year, despite the construction.

Finishing the underpass, Slutes adds, "shows things are getting done on the east end of downtown."

Completing the work also means Tucson's historic trolley can re-enter downtown. The last time that happened was in 1930.

Using the same tracks as the planned modern streetcar, the trolley, for now, will circle the Rialto Theatre block south of the underpass before heading back north toward the UA campus.

"I personally think Jim Glock (and the Department of Transportation) did a great job," says Dick Guthrie, president of the all-volunteer Old Pueblo Trolley. "If you can please 51 percent of people, you've done well."

A grand re-opening ceremony for the new underpass will be held at 4 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 20. For more information, check out next week's Tucson Weekly.