Reversing the Reversible

The City Council is studying increasing calls to eliminate the Grant Road reversible lane

Sweaty knuckles tightly clutching the steering wheel, a motorist with a pounding heart recently entered the Grant Road reversible lane during the afternoon rush hour. Near Stone Avenue, the traffic was much heavier in the opposite direction, backed up for blocks. Vehicles heading eastbound were moving at well more than the 40 mph limit, and at Cherry Avenue, two cars cut north, ignoring the prohibition against left-hand turns.

Traffic going east was more congested by Tucson Boulevard, but despite a lot of speeding and lane-jumping by some motorists who drove like they were on a L.A. freeway, things were moving smoothly. A couple of red lights slowed the flow down a little, but not much, before the reversible lane disappeared at Swan Road. Breathing deeply, the driver let out a sigh of relief that the harrowing five-mile trip in the center turn lane had been made in less than 15 minutes without incident.

Implemented 23 years ago, the Grant Road reversible lane is the last of its kind in Tucson since similar systems were eliminated from Fifth/Sixth Street and Broadway Boulevard during the past decade. Once touted as a way to move traffic without the expense of additional road construction, this dinosaur of an idea may now be facing extinction.

Northside Tucson City Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar certainly hopes so. Having heard loud complaints from both business owners who lose customer access and residents who fear for their children's safety, Dunbar is pushing to remove the lane, at least on a trial basis.

"It was supposed to be a temporary solution when introduced," she says. "It is frustrating to have them removed from Fifth/Sixth Street and Broadway, yet Grant Road is treated like some kind of stepchild. The people who live with it are sick of it."

Commenting on some of those who use the lane to commute to and from their eastside homes, Dunbar says, "If they had it in their back yards, I doubt if they would support it."

Ross Bryant, president of the Campbell-Grant Northeast Neighborhood Association, is one of those lobbying for the lane's removal. He says many out-of-towners unfamiliar with the system can be confused.

"You expect to hear lots of horn honking and squealing of brakes during rush hour," Bryant says.

Barbara Lehmann, president of the Dodge-Flower Neighborhood Association near Alvernon Way, stresses pedestrian safety as her primary concern with the reversible lane.

"It's a poor excuse for traffic planning," she says, "and is deadly, dangerous and detrimental to the quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods."

Eliminating the lane might also enhance business activity near the street. As a representative from Safeway said of its store at Broadway Boulevard and Campbell Avenue after the reversible lane was removed, "Anything which provides better access would be a good thing for business."

But not all commercial establishments share that view. Sam Hauert owns Grant Road Lumber Company, and concedes that discontinuing the reversible lane would help his business. But he still wants to see it remain.

"Removing the lane is going to result in autos backing up to cross streets," he says, "and we'd be asking for trouble with our volume of traffic. I'd just as soon have it stay."

Information produced by Tucson's Department of Transportation supports Hauert's analysis. If the reversible lane is removed, predictions are that delays at First Avenue will about triple to more than a minute and a half; those at Campbell Avenue will go from 24 to 84 seconds; and those at Alvernon Way more than double to almost three minutes.

On the flip side, a comparison of accident data for three years before and after the reversible lane was removed from Broadway Boulevard showed a 20 percent decrease after it was eliminated. In addition, seven of the 22 pedestrian accidents--including one child fatality--that have occurred over the past two years on Grant Road took place during the four hours that the system was in effect each day.

But those in the Transportation Department also believe some reversible-lane drivers might divert to other streets, causing neighborhood cut-through problems. Plus, the department put out this ominous statement: "The Grant Road signals will become the worst in the region if the reversible lane is removed without making capacity improvements at the major cross street traffic signals."

Despite that conclusion, Dunbar is pushing to end the "temporary" measure. She believes that Tucson instead needs an adequately funded regional plan to address its transportation issues in a comprehensive fashion.

Dunbar also thinks there is plenty of public support for getting rid of the lane. She recently attended a Chamber of Commerce breakfast at which participants were asked their opinions. Of the more than 100 attending, Dunbar says, only three favored keeping the lane.

That isn't the only indication of growing sentiment to eliminate Grant Road's unique traffic solution. Last Friday, by a unanimous vote, the chamber's Transportation Subcommittee officially recommended it be terminated, and the Campbell Avenue Business Partnership did the same a few weeks ago.

While he understands the benefits that killing off the reversible lane would have, midtown Councilman Fred Ronstadt points out the traffic implications of its demise. With his vote on the issue critical, he concludes, "I can argue both sides of the thing. I'll reserve my opinion until the council meeting."

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