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Feds write $63 million check for Tucson streetcar

Walkup: 'There's no great city that doesn't have a great downtown'

Tucson's modern streetcar project was awarded $63 million by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood on Thursday.

The federal grant is a slice of a $1.5 billion federal transportation program.

"There's no great city that doesn't have a great downtown," and the streetcar project will enhance the area by "tying the city together," said Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup.

Saying the grant is the result of the federal stimulus package, LaHood credited Tucson Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords for "two very courageous votes" for the recovery act.

"They helped pass the president's economic recovery plan one year ago," said LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, at a ceremony held at the Historic Depot, 414 North Toole Avenue.

"If you build it, they will come," said the Transportation secretary of the streetcar. The project is "a great model for urban planning projects around the country."

Giffords, D-Tucson, said the streetcar is an example of regional economic development, explaining why she threw her support behind a project outside her district.

"The economy is turning around because of a strategy of investment" that includes projects like the streetcar, said Grijalva, D-Tucson.

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State Rep. Steve Farley, a long-time proponent of light rail, was exuberant after the ceremonial check was signed by LaHood.

"It's been nine years of hard work, but that never guarantees anything," he said. "What did it was the community coming together."

The light rail system will run four miles from University Medical Center through downtown, to the west side of the Santa Cruz River at Cushing Street.

The $150 million streetcar project was approved as part of the Regional Transportation Plan in a 2006 election.

The $63 million grant will be matched by $75 million from the Regional Transportation Authority and $4 million in previously awarded federal funds.

Farley, a Democrat who represents Midtown, addressed the approximately $6 million shortfall, saying that construction costs have fallen since the budget was drawn up. "Construction costs are 30-40 percent cheaper over the last few years."

Farley said any funds that remain once the initial project is built could be put toward extended the light rail line to the airport, or dedicated to operating costs.

Giffords touted the economic benefits of the project. "It will create hundreds of jobs," she said.

Light rail will encourage more people to visit downtown, by eliminating parking worries. "Ten percent of Tucson lives within walking distance of the streetcar," said Giffords.

Both Giffords and University of Arizona President Robert Shelton spoke about the streetcar making student housing downtown possible. City officials consider increasing the number of residents in downtown a key to revitalizing the area.

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The Center for Public Integrity reports that the federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program received 1,380 applications, totaling $56.5 billion in requests. The program had $1.5 billion to award throughout the country. Congress has appropriated a further $600 million for the TIGER program.

The federal government has also announced another round of public transportation grants. $280 million will be awarded for streetcar and bus projects nationwide as part of the Livability Initiative.

A Phoenix project was potentially sidetracked when it received no TIGER funding. The $1 billion PHX Sky Train, which is planned to link the Metro light rail system with Sky Harbor International Airport, had requested $122 million from the stimulus program.

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Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.com

Whole lotta zeros - Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood signs a ceremonial check awarding $63 million to Tucson's streetcar project.

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