With an estimated working population of 20,000 in its downtown area along with upwards of 35,000 students at the nearby University of Arizona, the streetcar system will connect major activity centers in the city’s core. With early estimates of daily ridership of 4,000 passengers each weekday, the Tucson modern streetcar project will provide a vivid demonstration of several key goals of the LEED-ND pilot, including increasing transportation choices, decreasing automobile dependence, encouraging healthy lifestyle choices and reducing sprawl-type development.
The Slow Process of Change
While events in the development of the modern streetcar project have moved forward at a fast clip in recent years, getting to that critical point of progress was a long time coming. The process was especially slow for a group of Tucson citizens who began advocating for a return of streetcars in the 1980s. By that time, as the University of Arizona approached its centennial celebration, any remaining streetcars in Tucson had been relegated to the inventory of museum collections.
The launch of the Old Pueblo Trolley in 1983 marked the beginning of a long effort to demonstrate the value of what, at that time, must have seemed like a step backward more than a step into the future.
The Old Pueblo Trolley achieved non-profit status and moved forward with a feasibility study funded by the state of Arizona and the city of Tucson to validate the viability of a historic trolley service in the downtown core. That study showed that more than 1,000 passengers a day would be served by a historic trolley system.
As the years passed, multiple ballot initiatives to provide funding for such a system went down to defeat. The Old Pueblo Trolley managed to implement a limited service that included historic trolleys that operated on weekends in a 10-block area.
New Beginnings for a New Century
By 2003, the city of Tucson Department of Transportation (TDOT) recognized the need for high capacity transit alternatives as population growth and limited parking placed ever-increasing challenges on the city core. City leaders began to look toward rail transit as a potential solution to meet the needs for mobility, connectivity and continued economic development.
The renaissance of streetcars in a few other major U.S. cities also provided Tucson with examples of success. The Portland, Ore., streetcar system had boosted economic development, with more than 7,000 new housing units constructed along its route. Estimates of development investment along the Portland streetcar route top $2 billion.
From Private Funding to a “Small Start”
Streetcar systems of a century ago faced unpaved, muddy and often unstable and crude roadbeds. Streetcar companies were owned and operated by private companies who created private franchise agreements with land owners and special service districts to raise capital to make track and roadbed improvements.
Developers understood the advantage of having a streetcar route adjacent to their land. Cities began to spread along radial patterns that followed streetcar lines. Early systems were also often granted street railway franchise agreements, allowing exclusive use of a street right-of-way in exchange for street upgrades. These early agreements provided a model for utility franchise agreements common in most cities today.
The surge in automobile ownership by mid-century turned many away from streetcars as urban areas moved into an era based on individual mobility. The result was loss of both municipal and public support for streetcar systems. The Depression years brought federal funding to build public roadways. By the 1950s, federal funds were flowing toward the creation of the interstate highway system. Streetcars were relegated to the junk heap or museum collections. Today, an array of federal, state and local programs exist to help communities around the country finance more sustainable modes of mass transit. For Tucson, the process began with a Major Transit Investment Study/Alternatives Analysis to gain Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Small Starts support under its New Starts capital investment grant program.
As part of the New Starts program, the Small Starts category provides funding for lower cost projects with a simplified project evaluation and rating by the FTA. Projects are rated on three criteria, including cost-effectiveness, land use, and other factors, such as economic development and congestion pricing.