Will Tucson’s streetcar infatuation become a money pit?

The infatuation by some of the powers that be in Tucson over construction of a modern streetcar is being tarnished by cold reality.  Two recent stories in the Arizona Daily Star (here and here) document some problems and concerns that suggest the project will become a money pit.

The concept of a modern streetcar is just a frivolous show-piece for downtown redevelopment that would take dozens of riders from the University to the downtown “phantom hotel” and to a vacant lot on the west side of the Santa Cruz River that may, some decade, have museums and other attractions.

A story from Inside Tucson Business last year notes:

 “The streetcar project was approved by voters in May 2006 as part of the $2.1 billion Regional Transportation Plan. It’s expected to cost just over $196 million to build the 3.9-mile long rail from University Medical Center on the east through the University of Arizona and Fourth Avenue before cutting through downtown and across Interstate 10 to the westside. Funding is through a combination of federal grants, RTA money, city government grants, funds pledged from local utility companies and some private investment.”  That’s $50 million per mile.  “Once built, streetcar maintenance and operations would cost another $3 million to $4 million annually.”

The Arizona Daily Star story on Sunday documents crashes with streetcar systems.  It is particularly worried about bicyclists getting wheels caught in the space between rails and the road.  The type of rail chosen for the project, “T-Rail has a larger and more irregular gap of 2.5 inches that is more likely to catch bikes tires and trigger crashes.” “In addition, one side of the T-Rail is concrete and tends to chip away over time because of the vibrations of the streetcar, making the gap wider and more jagged over time.”  Will there be lawsuits from injured bicyclists?

A more recent story in the Star (here) notes that there are no funds for contingencies.

“Transportation officials said they’re short of their goal by $26 million, funds needed to pay for any emergencies or design modifications.”

City Councilman Paul Cunningham urged city workers to work as though they were facing a “doomsday scenario.”

 If the budget runs vastly over, he said, the council needs to be able to plan for how to address it – even if that means pulling the plug at some point, he said.

 “If we get to $200 million and we’ve built half of it, we’re not finishing it,” he said in an interview. “I think we have a lot of oversight and I have confidence they’re being really careful, but I’m just scared of cost overruns and the potential for nickel- and dime-ing and all those things that happen in projects with unforeseen circumstances.”

Are Cunningham’s words prophetic?  Will the streetcar become Tucson’s “doomsday scenario?”

I have a suggestion.  If City powers that be really think that a 1920s frivolity would be of economic benefit, then why not use dedicated, rubber-tired buses, perhaps powered by natural gas? That  would be less expensive.  If they wanted to spend even more of our money, the dedicated buses could have a special paint job and even coach-bodies designed to look like trolleys or streetcars.  A bus system would eliminated the tracks and their safety problems; it would eliminate the necessity to tear up streets for new infrastructure; and it would allow flexibility of routes should needs change.  Ah, but perhaps that’s too simple and not cool enough to cure the “modern” streetcar infatuation.

The powers that be could do a greater service to Tucson citizens by FIXING POTHOLES.

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8 comments

  1. Somebody tell me why we are putting this thing on the other side of the Santa Cruz where there will be NO museums or hotels or anything for that matter? Looks like we screwed this one up too! Getting to be a habit.

    1.  Urban development and revitalization. The west side of the SC has deep roots in the city’s history. There is also a large population of people who can benefit from the connection immediately.

  2. Why can’t we just improve the buses so that those who rely upon them for work don’t feel like 2nd class citizens? I’d rather see bus service improved than all the downtown streets ripped up for another annoying boondoggle.

  3. A reader from Florida commented by email:
    Pensacola, Florida has a very successful “trolley” system – the trolleys look just like a 1920s streetcar, but they’re rubber tired and diesel powered (though quite quiet). Being on rubber tires, they have flexibility to go anywhere there’s a paved road, PLUS they’re available for rental by civic groups and even private parties (weddings – it’s totally cool to trolley your wedding party to the beach for the wedding, then back to the hotel for the reception). When not in use, they get parked in the barn.

  4. If it becomes a “money pit” then I guess it will be a mistake, but I think folks need to get past this idea that this is a business intended to profit. It’s not – it is a transportation service that will always be supplemented by tax money. We don’t expect our streets to make money or even remain solvent so why this?

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