Tucson leaders hope streetcar gets downtown on track
It's a slow Thursday afternoon at Maynards Market and Kitchen in downtown Tucson, slow enough that clerk Morgen English has time to chat.
"This place is great, but not a lot of people know about it," English said of the upscale market. "I think that if more people have an easier mode of transportation that the businesses here, especially those close to the line, will improve."
"The line" is a $180 million modern streetcar project that Tucson city officials hope will bring more people, and their wallets, downtown.
The 3.9-mile line will link the University of Arizona and the Arizona Health Sciences Center to the east with downtown, where restaurants, bars and shops like Maynards are slowly cropping up.
In the process, the streetcars will connect established commercial districts such as Fourth Avenue, an eclectic mix of restaurants, nightspots and shops.
The project will expand the historic Old Pueblo Trolley system that operates on weekends along University Boulevard and Fourth Avenue near the UA.
City officials chose the streetcar versus a light rail or subway because it's more likely to encourage development along the entire length of the system rather than around just the stations, said Albert Elias, director of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development.
"A streetcar has the potential to transform the urban form and create a more livable environment than what we have right now," Elias said. "It's really kind of exciting to be able to plan around all of that."
Most of the funds for the project have been secured: The city received $63 million in federal stimulus funds in February and raised another $88 million through a Regional Transportation Authority that was approved in 2006. Those funds have come mostly from a local half-cent increase in the sales tax that will be levied for 20 years.
The city is eligible for another Federal Transit Administration grant of $25 million, of which $6 million has already been appropriated.
Tucson's streetcar enthusiasts say the system will let residents work, shop and play in the same area.
The streetcars will operate on two sets of tracks and will be powered by overhead wires. Unlike the Phoenix light-rail system, however, the Tucson trolleys will share travel lanes with automobiles through the 18-stop system.
While Tucson officials hope the project will revitalize the city's downtown, Anthony Rufolo, an urban planning expert in Portland, Ore., said the urban streetcar system in place there hasn't panned out.
"Transportation could be provided more effectively and at a lower cost with buses," said Rufolo, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University. "It's been a huge disaster; we are running into a situation where there is no money for buses."
Rufolo also challenged assertions that development would automatically follow the rail lines, saying that Portland had to provide costly incentives to get businesses to move in.
Although the Tucson project won't officially open until at least 2012, some downtown area businesses say they are already seeing an increase in economic activity.
"We've been doing better business each year, even through the recession," said David Slutes, the entertainment director at the historic Hotel Congress downtown. "We've already seen an uptick in attention, and people are coming downtown to what is our new burgeoning entertainment district."
After he got off work at the UA on a recent Thursday, food blogger and Sentinel contributor Kevin Hall headed for a drink in the Hotel Congress' bar, driving along the route that streetcars eventually will take.
"I think I would use the streetcar," Hall said. "Anything that is going to bring more [foot] traffic and people downtown is a great thing."
University officials also see a benefit in the streetcar carrying people in the other direction: They have been working with city officials to expand student housing downtown and are relying on the streetcar to ease traffic to campus.
"We've been trying, along with the city of Tucson, to get some kind of university presence downtown," said J.T. Fey, the UA's associate director of planning, design and construction. "We'd like to establish a presence like Arizona State University has done in Phoenix."
Fey said housing in the neighborhoods surrounding campus is increasingly hard to come by and the university has "been trying to meet that demand outside the neighborhoods."
"The streetcar will bring less dependence on cars and better air quality; it's a real win-win for everyone," Fey said.