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Guest opinion

Tucson Portland-ized? It should be so fortunate

What's the biggest danger facing Arizona's second city? According to Roger Yohem, writing in Inside Tucson Business, it is that the Old Pueblo will become Portland-ized:

Many of Portland’s traits infatuate Tucson’s bureaucrat copycats. To start with the obvious, Portland has a modern streetcar system that serves downtown. The real cost of Portland’s trolleys, infrastructure and tracks can be hard to gauge since much of it was taxpayer subsidized through government grants and tax gimmicks. But based on various public records, the consensus puts the initial cost at $25 million per mile. For $200 million, Tucson’s streetcar system will cost $50 million per mile. When subsidized by taxpayers, perhaps every city is entitled to pricey public transit.

I have no idea who this mammal is, but he perfectly encapsulates the retrograde ignorance that holds Arizona back. And he is an example of the endless streetcar hysteria that has enveloped the city since it began work on a (sit down, now) 3.9-mile line scheduled to open in 2013. Oh, the socialism! The Islamo-fascist-madness!

Never in Tucson's wildest fantasies could it achieve the level of Portland's livability, energy, magnetic draw for smart people or economic and cultural assets.

First, Roger, Portland enjoys a 52-mile light rail system with four lines and one under construction. It also has a streetcar that runs from downtown proper to the adjoining Pearl District. Both have been enormously successful, as virtually every light-rail project is including in Phoenix (we built it, you bastards). Second, never in Tucson's wildest fantasies could it achieve the level of Portland's livability, energy, magnetic draw for smart people or economic and cultural assets. You should get out more.

Poor Tucson voted down light rail at least twice. Unlike in Portland or Seattle or even Dallas, one is pretty much required to have a car. And this is not the sacred free market at work, but rather Sprawl Keynesianism. For decades, tax dollars have heavily subsidized roads, freeways, autos and oil — right down to our armed forces as a petroleum protection force. None of the externalities of this misadventure — from environmental damage to ruined city cores — has been priced in. The cost per-square-foot of car-based American suburbia, if calculated, would be astronomical.

This never enters the American mind. Instead, my Arizona researcher has sent me dozens of articles from the Tucson media about the fears and disruptions of this little streetcar line. Funny, the media never write about the very real damage of freeways and roads, which do not even begin to pay for themselves, or the lack of choices and inefficiencies in places with inadequate transit.

The streetcar could be a wonderful asset for central Tucson. The start of something big. Downtown actually has much of its building stock intact. The route along Fourth Avenue to the UA has good bones. The potential is great — but the reality will probably disappoint if the Rogers of Tucson oppose the other things necessary to make a thriving core. Instead: Try to be like Scottsdale! Tourism is sure to ensure high-paid jobs. And nevermind advocating frequent rail service to Phoenix. Pay airlines to add service! What do you expect when the big civic leader is a car dealer and the town was so toxically hopeless that native daughter Linda Ronstadt gave up the idea of coming home (n.b. Talton).

Thanks to our donors and sponsors for their support of local independent reporting. Join Kirsten Engel, Aaron Brannon, and Laurel Cooper and contribute today!

Metro Tucson, with the abortions of Marana and Oro Valley and the wildcat subdivisions, was hit even harder by the housing crash than Phoenix. Only about half of Pinal County's population resides in the city proper, where the poverty rate is 21 percent vs. a national average of 13.8 percent (Portland, 16 percent). The downtown convention center is run down. With Arizona's Your Tax Cuts At Work, more than half the city's streets are in disrepair. Things would be far worse without government: Big defense dollars to Raytheon, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, etc., plus the university.

The only hope for the populous states of the Intermountain West is to have cities as counterweights to the radical-nihilism of today's "conservatism." Denver with Colorado is the prime example, but even Salt Lake City is relatively progressive after its (LDS) fashion. This is not only necessary to restrain the excesses of the Kooks, but undertake — and even discuss — the measures necessary to address reality (urban solutions, environmental protection, conservation, competitiveness, etc. etc.). Somehow Phoenix, aside from its central city legislative delegation, can't do the same as Denver — although how much worse things would be without Phoenix. Pima County has long ago had its progressivism diluted by waves of retirees and others in the self-selecting Midwest migration. Want to take a bet that a GOPer wins Giffords' seat?

So fear not. Tucson won't be Portland-ized. It should be so fortunate.

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic and now is economics columnist of the Seattle Times.

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3 comments on this story

May 1, 2012, 12:04 pm
-1 +1

Joan said:

Heís been a newspaper columnist since the Ď90s.  Perhaps you just donít like what he says?

Perhaps you can research that in my 500 whatever it is comments here, this is the first time I’ve chided someone for being inarticulate…and FAR from the first time I have disliked something someone wrote.

May 1, 2012, 10:44 am
-1 +0

He’s been a newspaper columnist since the ‘90s.  Perhaps you just don’t like what he says?

May 1, 2012, 9:30 am
-1 +2

This piece is poorly-written, inarticulate, and most of it was hard to follow. I don’t know if this guy was contradicting himself or if he was just all over the place in some drug-induced stupor. To the best of my knowledge the Sentinel has never before published a piece by this Talton guy, and until he learns to write better I hope he’s never published here again.

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