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As May 16th Vote Nears, Support Grows for Multi-Modal Transport Plan With Streetcar System

Light Rail Now Project Team – May 2006

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 streets.
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 already here.

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 rush hour."

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 transportation improvements."

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 congested valley.
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 inevitable.

"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 afford it.

And it improves safety and convenience for pedestrians, bicyclists and even little desert critters.

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 address them."

"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 between.

"It's time to say yes for a change" urges the Weekly. "Support Props 1 and 2."

Light Rail Now website
Updated 2006/05/11

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