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Tucson streetcar (simulation)
[Graphic: RTA]


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Tucson's Light Rail Streetcar Project Making Progress

Susan Pantell With Light Rail Now Project Team · December 2009

Tucson, Arizona — The city's joint heritage and modern streetcar project (a form of light rail transit, or LRT) is now solidly under way, with major infrastructure improvements in progress and modern rolling stock on order.

Heritage trolley inaugurates new track

map On August 20th, project managers opened an important section – the Fourth Avenue Underpass – which also functions as an extension of the heritage streetcar line operated by the nonprofit Old Pueblo Trolley (OPT), which will share trackage and power distribution with the brand-new modern system. (See map at right.)
[Map adapted by LRN from Tucson Citizen original]

The city rebuilt the underpass and installed double tracks, which will allow streetcar access directly into downtown Tucson. The already-existing heritage trolley service runs westward from the University of Arizona, then south through the Fourth Avenue Business District, past the OPT carbarn, and under the underpass; it then circles the Rialto Theatre one block south of the underpass before heading back north.

OPT operates the trolleys on Fridays 18:00 to 22:00, Saturday noon to midnight, and Sunday noon to 18:00. The base fare is $1.00.

photo There are two operating vehicles: ex-Brussels tram No. 1511, which OPT obtained from a home improvements store in Phoenix; and No. 869, a double-truck car that formerly served the Kyoto and Osaka tramway systems in Japan. The total capacity of both cars is about 90 people.
[Photo: Ed Havens]

To provide heritage service in the future, OPT needs a reliable double-ended, double-truck car, and they located an R-W2 vehicle in Bendigo, Australia that is in good operating condition. (The R-W2 has the same body configuration as Melbourne's historic W2 cars but is different electrically, hence the designation R-W2.) OPT has arranged to purchase one vehicle for $150,000, including ocean shipping to Los Angeles, and has raised one-third of the needed funds. [Ed Havens e-mail, 10 Mar. 2009]

At the opening day ceremonies, Trolley No. 1511 broke through a ribbon at the underpass and Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup operated it for the ceremonial first run. However, as it attempted to climb the grade out of the underpass into downtown, the trolley rolled backward several times, and an experienced operator had to assist the Mayor by applying a burst of sand; then the trolley had no problem climbing the grade out of the underpass.

 photo 20 August 2009 — OPT streetcar No. 1511 breaks ribbon on new section of track through reconstructed underpass beneath railroad. This segment extends OPT line to edge of downtown Tucson, and will become important section linking modern streetcar system to University of Arizona.and northeast section of central city.
[Photo: Ed Havens]

The rest of the line other than the underpass section is single-track. The No. 1511 has doors on only one side, so it has to reverse directions at a "Y" located at 4th Avenue and 8th Street to have the doors on the correct side for passengers. OPT reconfigured it as a double-ended streetcar by placing trolley poles at both ends and adding a second controller and headlight on what was the rear of the single-ended car. In contrast, car No. 869 has doors on all four corners, so it will not need to be turned around to reverse direction. The No. 869 only has one of its two motors operational at this time, and it will need to have the other one repaired so that it will have enough power to climb out of the underpass. [Ed Havens e-mail, 22 Aug. 2009]

Union Pacific railroad tracks, which also carry Amtrak trains, run on the bridge over the rebuilt underpass. A pedestrian-bicycle bridge has also been constructed, and there are pedestrian walkways on each side of the underpass. Traffic lanes were widened as part of the project (motor vehicles also use the underpass), and an elevator and staircase were added on the southern end.

Initial plans called for the old underpass to be restored, with a new subway built next to it to accommodate the historic trolley. A bid for that proposal in 2005 was $31 million, which the city decided was too much. Another proposal was made, to widen the underpass, with an estimated construction cost of $26 million. Over time, the total cost of the project increased to almost $46 million. The original estimate did not include $6.5 million for two underpass designs; $1 million for design changes during construction; $2.3 million for city staff time, inspections and testing; and $5 million for public art, relocating railroad tracks and moving utilities. [Arizona Daily Star, 20 August 2009] At least $40 million of the costs will be paid by regional fuel-tax funds. [Tucson Weekly, 6 Aug. 2009]

The last time an historic streetcar entered downtown was in 1930. The original underpass was built in 1916, but later, the Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission voted to destroy it. At that time, the Tucson Rapid Transit Company substituted buses for its four-wheel streetcars built by Wason Manufacturing Co., and a single-truck Birney-type streetcar. The single track on 4th Avenue was constructed by volunteers in 1987, and the track on University Blvd. is the original Tucson Rapid Transit track with the asphalt scraped off.

Modern streetcar project advances

The City of Tucson and the Tucson Area Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) are building a modern streetcar line. The current plan calls for double track downtown to the University of Arizona, partially replacing OPT's single track on Fourth Avenue and University Blvd., and extending from the University of Arizona Main Gate through campus and north to the University Medical Center. Downtown the line will run from Fourth Avenue to paired single tracks, westbound on Congress and eastbound on Broadway, turning south at Granada and Broadway next to the new Federal Courthouse, and terminating at Cushing Street on the west side of downtown, near a planned convention center hotel. The streetcars will operate in mixed traffic except on Granada Ave., where they will have a semi-exclusive right-of-way. (See map below.)

 map legend

[Map: RTA]

This alignment, called the Downtown-University Boulevard Route, was selected because within a half-mile of the proposed transit stops, it will serve a larger total population, minority population, and low-income population as well as more zero-car households than alternative routes. The second alternative being evaluated, using 6th Street, would serve a slightly higher total employment number. [RTA Website]

The original plan for the line was to extend it west to the Tucson Origins museum-retail-housing project, which is part of the Rio Nuevo redevelopment west of Highway I-10 and the Santa Cruz River, but this portion depends upon construction of a bridge over the Santa Cruz River. The bridge was approved by the City Council in 2006, and was originally going to cost $6 million and open in September 2009, but the projected costs have increased to more than $10 million, and it may not be completed until 2012. The bridge is being designed for the fourth time at a cost of $600,000, on top of $1 million spent on earlier designs, which would have caused upstream flooding on the Santa Cruz River, triggering the federal permitting process. In addition, the construction contract has to be rebid because federal rules do not accept the city's procurement method.

The Rio Nuevo redevelopment is funded by state tax revenues derived from a special taxing district. Because of slow progress, high planning costs, and the recession, the Republican-controlled state Legislature decided that the special district funds would only be used for revenue-producing projects such as the convention center expansion and hotel at this time and not toward construction of the bridge. [Ed Havens e-mail, 9 Aug. 2009]

streetcar The plan now is for the modern streetcar to begin operation in November 2011 and extend to the museum district on the west side of the Santa Cruz River starting in 2012. [Arizona Daily Star, 9 Aug. 2009] The complete line will be 3.9 route-miles (6.3 kms), 7.2 track-miles (11.6 kms), and include 19 stations. [RTA City of Tucson Fact Sheet, 12 March 2009]
[Streetcar simulation: RTA]

The project is estimated to cost approximately $161.4 million, for track, vehicles, guideways, stations, systems, maintenance facility, site work, and finance charges. This figure does not include the estimated $10 million for the Cushing Street Bridge over the Santa Cruz River. [Joan Beckim, Tucson Department of Transportation, e-mail, 28 Aug. 2009] The cost per mile, including just the track and guideways, is about $25 million. [Tucson Citizen, 22 March 2007] The RTA will contribute $87.7 million, which comes from a half-cent sales tax for roads and transit. [RTA/City of Tucson Fact Sheet, 12 March 2009] The city was hoping to receive a $75 million grant from the Small Starts program, but there was some controversy with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) about the project meeting the cost- effectiveness criteria. FTA decided that they did not qualify for Small Starts, and instead awarded them $25 million under New Starts without requiring the extended analysis that the New Starts process usually requires. [Tucson Citizen, 12 Dec. 2008] They hope to obtain an additional $50 million from other federal sources such as the Surface Transportation Program (STP) Flexible Funding discretionary dollars, and stimulus package funds. Operation costs are estimated at $3 million per year. [City of Tucson Department of Transportation website, 2009].

In January, 2009, the FTA approved the Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the Environmental Assessment. The city was awarded $2 million in 2008 and $3 million in 2009 toward planning and construction of the streetcar line.

The city ordered seven Skoda-licensed Astra model modern streetcars from United Streetcar LLC for $26 million, about $3.7 million each. The vehicles are 66 feet long and have a capacity of about 130 passengers (35 seated and 90 standing). The streetcars will operate 20 hours a day, seven days a week, every 10 minutes during the day and every 20 minutes during the evening. Ridership is projected at 3,600 passengers per weekday when revenue service begins. The modern streetcars will be operated either by the Suntran bus system, which is municipally owned but operated by a private firm, or by the city of Tucson Department of Transportation.

The OPT heritage streetcars will be able to operate the entire length of the new line, but they may run shorter routes, and it is not yet clear how their schedules will be integrated with those of the modern streetcars, particularly since the heritage cars are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Original research and narrative for this article were provided by LRN Research Associate Susan Pantell, and details on Tucson project developments were provided by Ed Havens. Additional information and analysis were provided by others on the Light Rail Now Project team.

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2009/12/15

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