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Tucson - January 2013

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Tucson ― Sun Link as an Amenity

January 2013

An editorial in Inside Tucson Business addressed concerns some area residents are having about the 3.9-mile long streetcar route that is being built from the University of Arizona Meidcal Center to and through downtown:

A radio talk show host and his guest were talking on air the other day about the boondoggle they saw in Sun Link, the $196.8 million modern streetcar line under construction that will travel a 3.9 mile route from the University of Arizona Medical Center past the UA campus, through the Main Gate and Fourth Avenue retail areas into downtown Tucson and ending up on the west side of Interstate 10 and the Santa Cruz River.

“It goes from nowhere to nowhere,” the guest on the radio show said.

“Yes, nobody’s going to ride it,” the host chimed in.

They’re looking at it all wrong.

Yes, it is part of the 20-year, $2.1 billion Regional Transportation Plan that voters approved in May 2006, which included$75 million of funding. And the U.S. Department of Transportation came up with a $63 million grant.
So with so much “transportation” funding, it’s understandable that anyone would think of the streetcar as a transportation solution.

We believed that, too, at one point. But we’ve come to some realizations about the streetcar.

What Sun Link is not:

  • Like any other light rail system. Officials have insisted on calling it a “modern streetcar” — not only to differentiate it from old-fashioned streetcars most cities gave up on long ago but also to not compare it to other light rail systems.
  • An efficient mode of mass transportation. Moving people efficiently has ever been a forte of transportation officials in Tucson. Instead of freeways we have a patchwork of different modes of transportation, none of which works well. Heck, we even have at least five different ways to make a left turn — leading, lagging, protected, unprotected and, soon, Michigan.
  • Something most readers of Inside Tucson Business will use on a regular basis. People who commute to work will not be heavy users of Sun Link. It might come in handy for a night out. Come into the downtown-UA area park your car in one place. Or better yet, take a cab so as not to mix drinking and driving and have access to a whole area for entertainment.

What Sun Link is:

  • A link that will help facilitate the UA’s plans to get student enrollment up to 50,000 by the end of this decade.
  • Something students will ride. Students don’t want to put up with the hassles of commuting to and from campus in a car. That’s why large student housing complexes not near campus provide transportation. Students will also use Sun Link when going out at night. (It will be critically important for Sun Link to run well into the night and early-morning hours.)
  • An economic boost. The area around the streetcar line is already enjoying the strongest economic revival in the Tucson region.

There are reasons for concern.

City Councilman Steve Kozachik has already raised questions about the amount of subsidies that will be needed to keep Sun Link running. The company manufacturing the streetcars is behind schedule and deliveries may be delayed.

And just wait until there’s an accident.

Urban rail systems are notoriously dangerous. Designers try to keep rail lines separate from other traffic but Tucson’s system will run on city streets mixed with vehicular traffic which only increases the statistical odds of an accident.

It will happen.

But really, we have to stop thinking of Sun Link as a means of efficient transportation like a major roadway or freeway or a subway or any other transit system. Let’s just consider it an amenity like Jácome Plaza is next to the Joel D. Valdez Main Library downtown or the 12-foot orange griffin on Scott Avenue.


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