What a difference a century makes — or not. In 1905, the Tucson Rapid Transit Co. purchased five electric streetcars. Originally used in Los Angeles, the streetcars carried more than 30 passengers each. The electric cars went into operation on June 1, 1906, with track and overhead wires in place. The modern electric streetcars replaced horse-driven streetcars that had operated in Tucson since 1879.
Fast forward 100 years and a population growth of nearly a million people. In May 2006, Tucson residents agreed to provide local funding for a modern streetcar system as part of a Regional Transportation Authority Plan approved by 60 percent of voters. The selection of modern streetcar as the locally preferred alternative (LPA) was unanimously approved by the mayor and Tucson city council, setting the project officially in motion. While Tucson’s original streetcars were green in color, the new streetcar system will be a sustainable shade of “green.”
LEEDing into the Future
Plans for the modern streetcar project coincided with the release of an ambitious new program from a collaboration of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), Congress for New Urbanism and the National Resources Defense Council, putting Tucson in a unique position as host to the only transportation project accepted as a pilot project for the emerging Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) program.
The Tucson modern streetcar system is one of 238 pilot projects selected in August 2007 to help create standards for a national certification system for sustainable neighborhood design and development. While the LEED program for commercial buildings has been in place for more than a decade, the LEED-ND program represents the “next generation of grween building thinking,” according to USGBC President Rick Fedrizzi.
Backed by the growing recognition that the urban sprawl that characterized growth of cities like Tucson through most of the 20th century is not a sustainable approach to continuing population expansion, the LEED-ND program aims to integrate the concepts of green building with smart growth and new urbanism to create more efficient communities.
The LEED-ND pilot projects encompass locations across 39 states and six other countries, with projects ranging from less than an acre in size to large-scale community developments of 10,000 acres and more.
Thinking Outside the Box
While the original LEED program continues to set the standard for individual buildings, the new focus on entire neighborhoods recognizes that development rarely occurs one building at a time. The LEED-ND program seeks to create a more powerful strategy for environmentally sustainable growth by focusing on compact, mixed-use neighborhoods that will make walking and non-driving transit options more attractive.
Bringing increased focus to essential issues such as community infrastructure, density development and resource conservation, the launch of the LEED-ND pilot program at the same time that Tucson voters approved the modern streetcar project presented project planners with a unique opportunity to showcase how a transit project can help lead a community to more sustainable choices and ultimately, a healthier place to live.
Yet even with an expanded opportunity to view sustainable development in broader terms than individual buildings, the application and acceptance of the Tucson modern streetcar project into the LEED-ND pilot represents true “outside-the-box” thinking by both the city of Tucson and the USGBC. While it has no building structures beyond basic facilities required to support streetcar operations, the Tucson streetcar system will connect existing and planned civic, cultural and educational facilities along its planned route.