Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg visits Tucson to talk $25M for new 22nd St. bridge
Rebuilding means 'more equity & economic growth in a part of our city that has been historically disinvested' — Mayor Romero
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg paid a visit to Tucson on Thursday to announce a $25 million project to replace the 22nd Street bridge over Aviation Parkway and the Union Pacific Railroad. Buttigieg touted the project as one of the first major investments to come out of the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed last November.
The work will include replacing the bridge with a stronger, wider span, and constructing a second bridge dedicated to pedestrians and bicyclists.
Buttigieg, a candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, was joined by U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick and Tucson Mayor Regina Romero at the Fred G Acosta Job Corps Center near the bridge for the announcement.
The Tucson project is “shovel-ready” and “scheduled to begin at the end of August 2022,” city officials said. The $25 million grant is a federal match for funding coming from the city of Tucson, state-shared revenues and the Regional Transportation Authority.
“The community has been working to address these issues for over a decade and secured most but not all of the funding to do it,” Buttigieg said. “We (the federal government) are putting in the final $25 million to make this project happen.”
More than $75.3 million from the bill is going to Arizona counties and cities this year through a federal grant program called Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity, or RAISE. The grants will immediately fund three other major projects in Navajo and La Paz counties and in the city of Phoenix.
The Republican National Committee issued a bitter partisan response to the secretary and Kelly's visit in light of the Senate passing the Inflation Reduction Act on Sunday with a vote by Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a 50-50 party-line split.
"Biden and Buttigieg’s attempt to bail out Mark Kelly will fail,” RNC spokesman Ben Petersen said in an email before the Tucson event. "Biden bureaucrat Pete Buttigieg’s campaign stops are a slap in the face to hardworking Arizonans after Democrat Mark Kelly just voted" to pass the inflation-targeting bill that had no Republican support. Kelly's Senate seat is up for election in November.
'This vital bridge is in rough shape'
Nearly a mile of 22nd Street from Tucson Boulevard to Kino Parkway will be expanded from four to six lanes, and the bridge over the neck of the Union Pacific railyard will be replaced with a stronger span to allow heavy vehicles such as ambulances and school buses to travel over it.
The current bridge was built in the 1960s and has had a 15-ton weight restriction since 2005 that has “forced trucks, transit buses, school buses, emergency vehicles to detour through Kino Parkway and the Barraza-Aviation Parkway,” Buttigieg said.
“This vital bridge is in rough shape,” he said. “That means kids losing time everyday on their way to school, people losing sleep, parents heading to work on Sun Tran buses — spending up to 30 minutes more than if the bridge were in good working order.”
The funding was directed to the bridge replacements through a "collaborative effort," Kirkpatrick said. "It took everybody with their oars in the water rowing in the same direction."
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who wasn’t at the event, thanked Buttigieg for the project funding in a press release, saying it “addresses significant needs” and “provides an east-west connection between Downtown Tucson and other under-invested areas of our community.”
The project promises "more equity and economic growth in a part of our city that has been historically disinvested," Mayor Romero said. "And it grapples with the challenges of that lack of investment."
The 22nd Street span falls within a stretch of roadway that marks a traditional division between Midtown and the South Side of the city.
"This investment will help us improve the quality of life for Tucson residents who have lived with safety risks, heavy treks through their neighborhoods, few options for non-motorized travel and separation from them to the University of Arizona and Downtown Tucson," she said. "This project takes a 1960s-era mindset of how to move vehicles and brings it to the 21st century."
The Tucson mayor was thankful "for such a historic investment in our nation's infrastructure," she said, asking Buttigieg to "send her sincere appreciation to President Biden for leading on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law."
Bus routes and bottlenecks
The new bridge will give freight trains on the UP tracks below more clearance and end bottlenecks, officials said. It will also improve road safety, Buttigieg said, noting that “in the past five years, 141 crashes” have been reported on and around the bridge, including “90 on the detour route.”
Bus routes will cross over the new bridge, including 110 Sun Tran buses and 120 school buses crossing it daily, Buttigieg said. Sun Tran is set to receive about $118 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
The transportation secretary called the law “the strongest federal investment in public transit in American history.”
A separate pedestrian and bike bridge will also be built alongside the main vehicle bridge. The project also calls for a “broadband conduit” to bring high-speed internet to underserved communities during future expansion, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“Once it’s complete people who drive or walk or bike from east to west will be able to do so more safely and more quickly, getting to jobs and parks and loved ones across the city,” Buttigieg said.
Investing in “active transportation” like bicycles and walking has an “economic benefit, an equity benefit and, of course, an environmental benefit when you do it correctly,” he said.
"We want transportation. We want to be able to get around town. We want mobility," Kirkpatrick said.
The four Arizona projects funded with the RAISE grants will create “tens of thousands of new, high-paying jobs coming to the state of Arizona that do not require a four-year degree,” Kelly said. Infrastructure spending “is important to bring down costs. It’s important for our national security.”
Buttigieg left Tucson for Phoenix after his morning visit on Thursday to talk about federal spending there. The three other Arizona projects include:
Buttigieg credited Kelly and U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema as “central players in negotiating this Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that is directly funding projects” such as the 22nd Street bridge rebuilding.
“And they did it on a bipartisan basis at a time when people have said you couldn’t do anything on a bipartisan basis in Washington (D.C.),” he said.
Kelly held a similar press conference in August of last year to talk about investments in Tucson from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law after it passed the Senate. Sun Tran would see major benefits, he said, and efforts to connect Tucson to Phoenix by rail will get a boost. The Tucson International Airport has already received a $23 million grant to speed up their runway project.
Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., told Romero that the Biden administration “has your back.”
“The work of local leadership has become more demanding and even more important,” Buttigieg said. “”I hope that difficult, demanding job of mayor is just a little bit easier when you have an administration that has your back in Washington.”
More than $2.2 billion in RAISE grants will fund 166 other projects around the nation, including repairs to a pontoon bridge in Louisiana and new electric ferries in Washington. The RAISE grants are “just one of dozens of programs funded by this Infrastructure Law,” Buttigieg said.
Low-income families in the U.S. spend 40 percent of their household budgets on housing and transportation combined, Buttigieg said. “They can’t afford to think about housing and transportation as separate matters.”
“Too often across America, we see people either living in a place they can’t afford so they can get to work or being impossibly far away from work so they can be in a place they afford,” Buttigieg said. “We can do something about that.”
Transportation and housing strategies should have a closer connection, Buttigieg said. His department is working with local communities with the Department of Housing and Urban Development so low-income communities can see the benefits of major transportation spending, he said.
Tucson stood out in their application for the $25 million grant because city officials considered how the funding would impact housing affordability and disadvantaged communities, Buttigieg said.
Romero said Tucson has to look at the issue "holistically and look at a multi-layered approach to help working families and low-income people."
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.