The Pace of Progress

While Fourth Avenue underpass construction is set, the Arroyo Chico detention-basin project is in trouble

The long-discussed replacement of downtown's Fourth Avenue underpass appears to finally be getting close--but the nearby Arroyo Chico detention-basin proposal, also talked about for many years, has serious funding problems.

Brooks Keenan, underpass project manager for the city of Tucson's Transportation Department, anticipates some preliminary utility and traffic work on the underpass will begin within three months. But, he emphasizes, that schedule is contingent upon approval from the Union Pacific railroad, under whose tracks the tunnel runs.

A previously OK'd plan from the 1990s would have cost $30 million to construct. That plan would have saved the existing underpass, with a new one built next to it for automobiles, the existing trolley and the anticipated modern streetcar line. However, the current $23 million proposal puts all those features into one wide underpass while destroying the historic structure built in 1916. It also potentially makes some land near its southern entrance available for future development.

The approaching demise of the old subway isn't good news to Sharon Chadwick, a member of the Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission. Even though most of the group previously supported the present concept, Chadwick lists three reasons why she's opposed.

"First," Chadwick says, "I never agree to the demolition of a historic structure or building. Second, the idea (proposed by the city staff) that the Stone Avenue underpass will be saved instead, I don't believe!"

As part of Tucson's Downtown Links roadway discussions, city consultants and staff members have made it clear that they intend to preserve both the Stone Avenue subway, which dates from 1935, along with the Sixth Avenue underpass from 1930. One rationale behind this decision is simply a lack of funding to replace either structure.

Chadwick's last reason for arguing against the Fourth Avenue: "If we can only save one underpass," she says, "save the oldest one."

A member of the Old Pueblo Trolley board of directors, Chadwick disagrees the new plan serves the interest of that group. "There are other ways to get the trolley downtown," she argues. "The original concept did it, or a tunnel for trolleys only could be built."

Now that the new project's design has been finalized, it remains up in the air whether the Historical Commission will get a look at it. The old underpass is the subject of a city consultant's study that's expected in next month; after it is completed, city staff members say, the new proposal will probably go back to the Historical Commission for comment.

The same process, however, apparently won't be followed with the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), which has never even seen the current concept. City staffers insist approval from that agency isn't needed to construct the project.

Since the underpass is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and because state funds are being used to replace it, the SHPO office may disagree. Bill Collins from SHPO states the city should at least notify him of the proposed work.

The current construction schedule calls for street-detour work to start in May. To permit the relocation of utility lines, a few blocks of Broadway Boulevard will temporarily become a two-way street between its underpass and Fifth Avenue.

Keenan expects this detour to be in place for five months. He also hopes actual demolition work on the underpass can start by July, with construction expected to take 10 to 14 months.

During this period, the underpass will be closed, so hundreds of Tucson High School students who daily use it to reach downtown's Ronstadt Transit Center will have to find another route. Keenan lists three alternatives the city is preparing to accommodate them. The first is to install sidewalks and streetlights along Eighth Street between Fourth and Sixth avenues, encouraging pedestrians to use the underpass on the latter street instead. Keenan points out this change only increases the walking distance by 100 feet.

The second option is a pedestrian/bicycle route south from Fourth Avenue toward the Rattlesnake Bridge on Broadway Boulevard, with this path then swinging back into downtown. Third, Keenan says, free Tucson Inner City Express Transit shuttle service will be extended to Fourth Avenue.

While the new underpass project moves forward, the Arroyo Chico detention basin proposal is stuck in funding limbo. First proposed almost 15 years ago, the storm-water-slowing basins, which would stretch from Kino Boulevard to Park Avenue, were estimated to cost $17 million. But when the lone bid was opened in December, it was $38 million.

Based on that setback, the U.S. Corps of Engineers, which is paying for the project, met last week with Pima County officials to discuss how to proceed, and another meeting was planned for this week. The county's Suzanne Shields says they are looking at reducing concrete, utility and excavation costs.

Shields indicates that if the costs can be brought within 25 percent of the original estimate, construction could go forward without having to rebid the project. "We need to make a decision on that fairly quickly," she says.

There are some things Shields insists won't be cut from the project. These include the landscaping and additional features which helped sell the concept to both the Corps and surrounding neighbors.

"We are not redesigning the project," Shields declares in an e-mail to concerned neighbors. "The landscaping and other amenities add benefits to the project."

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