On 16 May 2006, Tucson voters must decide the fate of another rail transit initiative – this one involving a proposed light rail streetcar system.
As Edward B. Havens noted in his recent report Tucson: Light Rail Transit Trying for a Comeback With Streetcar Plan,
the measure coming before voters is a plan to establish a half-cent sales tax
funding a regional mobility plan, sponsored by the Regional Transportation
Authority (RTA), that would include "a laundry list of piecemeal highway and
street improvements," as well as bus service upgrades and a modern streetcar
system – generally modelled after similar systems in Portland, Oregon, and Tacoma, Washington.
According to the RTA, the "modern, high-capacity" streetcar system will initially
traverse a 4-mile route from the University Medical Center, through the University
of Arizona campus (with 50,000 students) and then through downtown, and on to
the Rio Nuevo master plan area. Matching federal grants of up to $75 million will
be sought to help fund the streetcar project, which is generally estimated to cost
about $150 million (calculating to about $38 million per mile).
The RTA notes that currently, about 10 percent of residents of the Tucson
metropolitan area "live, work or attend school within walking distance of the
location of the streetcar." The agency emphasizes that "The streetcar will provide
additional people-moving capacity without widening streets."
The transportation initiative comes to the voters in the form of two ballot issues,
Question 1 and Question 2.
· Question #1 endorses the RTA's Regional Transportation Plan (RTP).
· Question #2 establishes the previously mentioned half-cent sales tax in Pima
County for 20 years to provide funding for the RTP as described in Question #1.
The multi-modal RTA plan is tending to unite much of the Tucson community
and has drawn unusually strong top-level support. Three major local newspapers
– including the city's two daily papers – have endorsed the RTA plan.
Here are excerpts from their editorial endorsements:
Tucson Citizen (27 April 2006)
"We've said 'No' long enough; 'Yes' on RTA" says the Tucson Citizen,
noting that "The Regional Transportation Authority plan would provide more roads, sidewalks and bike lanes plus better transit."
Let's be clear: The Regional Transportation Authority plan is not a panacea. A
"yes" vote on May 16 will neither end rush-hour gridlock nor make it possible to
zip across town without stopping at any lights.
We have long passed the point when a plan - any plan - will fix what ails Tucson
It would cost $6 billion to fix all the transportation problems we have today. If
voters do approve the RTA plan and the half-cent sales tax increase to pay for it,
that would raise about $2.1 billion over the next 20 years. And by then, our
problems will be much worse.
But that is no reason to reject the RTA plan. Those figures illustrate clearly how
far behind we are in dealing with transportation - and how much worse traffic will
most assuredly become if we continue to do nothing.
The paper notes that critics are focusing on "controversial aspects" of the RTA
plan, "hoping that will distract voters from the many positive things that are
proposed." However, the paper emphasizes that it's time to move forward, and
even partial solutions are better than none at all.
The modern streetcar, which would run from University Medical Center to
downtown, may not cater to most people. But it is an innovative proposal and an
important link to the Rio Nuevo project.
Look at the plan as a whole and what it would accomplish:
· For the vast majority of Tucsonans who commute by car, there would be
35 road improvement projects, including more than 200 new lane miles. Many
intersections would get dual left-turn lanes and other improvements. There also
would be 200 new bus pullouts.
· Transit would be improved so it would be a viable alternative to the car.
Sun Tran buses would come more frequently and run later at night. There would
be more express bus service. A high-capacity streetcar would connect the
University of Arizona to Fourth Avenue and downtown.
· Pedestrians and bike riders would benefit, with 250 miles of new
sidewalks and 550 miles of new bike lanes and bike paths.
Important safeguards are built into the plan to ensure that the work is done as
promised. Voters must approve before any project is added, deleted or delayed.
"This is a good plan that addresses some of the most pressing needs of our
community" concludes the paper, adding:
The Tucson Citizen urges a "yes" vote on Questions 1 and 2 on May 16.
Arizona Daily Star (23 April 2006)
In an editorial headlined "Say 'yes' to transportation plan on May 16", the
Arizona Daily Star argues that "A half-cent sales tax is small price to
pay for needed improvements that are the best things planners have to offer".
"Voters should approve the Regional Transportation Plan and a half-cent-per-
dollar increase in the sales tax to fund it" continues the paper.
The alternative is to do what Tucson has done too often for the last 30 years,
which is to bury its head in the sand and assume that the area's transportation
problems will magically be resolved at some vague point in the future — when
things get bad.
As most of us know, bad has arrived. We creep from place to place. We rear-
end each other frequently. We speed. We curse the darkness that engulfs our
political leaders and city planners. Why don't they fix this mess? we ask.
The county's population is expected to reach 1 million by next year, a portentous
milestone in an area where the roads can barely handle the population that's
The paper points out that "transportation planners have tried repeatedly to
address the problem, but Tucson voters are a quirky bunch" – and then
goes on to cite a number of issues where the lack of a community consensus
has thwarted action on a viable, comprehensive transportation plan.
Whatever the detailed issues, notes the paper, Tucsonans "don't want Tucson to
look like Phoenix or Los Angeles."
"We say: Enough" asserts the Star. "The list of what we don't want
is very long. The list of what we do want is very short: Get us from Point A to
Point B without turning the journey into an exercise in anger management."
Furthermore, it warns, "Let's do it before our roads look like Mexico City during
The regional transportation plan that we're urging voters to approve in the May
16 election lays out a blueprint for making an enormous number of road and
mass-transit improvements over the next 20 years.
Some roads will be widened.
There will be many more bus pull-outs so that traffic is no longer backed up
behind a bus stopped in a through lane.
There will be many more bike lanes.
There will be longer bus routes and schedule changes that keep the buses
running later at night.
There will be improvements in traffic signal coordination.
There will be more pedestrian paths.
There will be an electric streetcar connecting the university area to Downtown.
"And when we shop," continues the Star, "we will pay a sales tax
increase that amounts to a nickel on every $10 we spend. That will finance the
The half-cent-per-dollar increase in the sales tax is expected to generate $2.1
billion over the next 20 years. A special citizens committee will make sure the
money is used for its intended purpose.
The $2.1 billion sounds considerable, but it's not a magic bullet. It will pay for
many improvements, but it is still not enough to create the ideal. Like all other
projects, this one has a price tag and a budget. We will get the kind of regional
transportation changes that can be bought for the amount of money we have.
Is half a loaf better than none? Absolutely. It's a safe bet that we can't improve
anything by making a decision to do nothing.
"Those who have criticized the plan and the half-cent sales tax have so far
produced no alternative ideas or methods of generating more money for
transportation improvements" the paper notes.
We've heard lots of airy comments about improving our quality of life, as though
that term could be defined in a way that would suit every resident in this
We also heard suggestions that assume there is a single affordable
transportation plan that will meet the needs of everyone – bicycle riders,
the elderly, students, people who prefer to use mass transit rather than drive. But
this is no more than a philosophical longing for a utopia.
When it comes time to vote, let's remember that the Tucson metropolitan area is
no longer a sleepy backwater. The area is vast and economically vibrant.
Additional population growth, along with all the spinoff that it creates, is
"We can ignore that reality or we can, at long last, accept it and build the
infrastructure to accommodate it" concludes the Star.
It makes sense to acknowledge what most of us already realize. We need
serious comprehensive transportation improvements, and we'll need to generate
the money to pay for them. Let's vote "yes" on May 16.
Tucson Weekly (20 April 2006)
"The 'Weekly' encourages you to vote yes on the transportation plan", headlines
the Tucson Weekly in its own editorial, which explains,
We're tired of sitting in traffic on crappy roads. We're tired of deficient bus
service. We're tired of lousy sidewalks.
And that's why we're ready to support the Regional Transportation Authority's 20-
year, $2.1 billion transportation plan, which will be funded by a half-cent sales tax
if Pima County voters listen to us and say yes on Election Day, May 16.
The paper notes that "Local voters have proven a prickly bunch" over the past
several years, rejecting both highway and transit measures.
"So is this one just right?" the paper asks.
"Well, that might be a bit of a fairy tale" it answers.
But the plan, while imperfect, is the result of a public process of give-and-take to
reach political consensus. And we're willing to give a little on things we don't like
in order to get the things we want.
The Weekly continues:
The plan fills in major gaps in our roadway system. It does not include a freeway
(far too expensive and too politically charged), but it does widen corridors that
will provide congestion relief--or at least prevent us from falling further behind.
Streets get widened both inside the city and on the perimeter of the community.
We also get a major boost to our transit system. You may not ride the bus today,
but once the price of gas climbs to $4, $5 or $6 a gallon, you might find it's an
attractive alternative--especially if service is improved. For that matter, as you get
older--and our community has more than its share of retirees--you might come to
prefer letting someone else take the wheel.
The plan looks to the future with a rail system between the university and
downtown that could someday be expanded if Tucsonans embrace it. The cost
of that rail system amounts to roughly 4 percent of the overall package. We can
And it improves safety and convenience for pedestrians, bicyclists and even little
The Weekly editorial addresses a number of major arguments
presented by opponents of the RTA's plan.
In regard to the streetcar proposal, the Weekly notes that
[critics] dismiss the urban streetcar as "trolley folly." But once a line is
established in a high-density area, it has a chance to expand through central
Tucson, creating an economic corridor that would be great for business and
provide a real alternative to driving as gas prices climb. It's worked in other cities;
it can work here.
With evident weariness, the Weekly noyes that "Pima County's
transportation woes are only going to get worse. Even if this plan passes, our
needs will far outstrip our available resources. But if it fails, we won't even start to
"If you want a perfect plan," says the paper, "you'll be waiting longer than a
commuter at Grant and First."
This plan is a product of compromise, which means that nearly everyone will
have a problem with one part or another. But it's still being supported by
environmentalists in the Sky island Alliance and developers in the Southern
Arizona Home Builders Association; by car dealers and the Pima County
interfaith Council; by Democrats and Republicans; and by a long list of folks in
"It's time to say yes for a change" urges the Weekly. "Support Props
1 and 2."
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