On July 25, 2014, the brand-new Tucson “Sun Link” streetcar opened to 17,000 eager citizens excited to take their first ride. Covering 3.9 miles in Central Tucson, the streetcar route includes the University of Arizona Campus, the Main Gate and 4th Avenue shopping and entertainment districts, Downtown Tucson, the Tucson Convention Center, and the Mercado District.
Despite its recent arrival, the planning of the Tucson streetcar system has been a long time coming. The original vote to approve the implementation of the streetcar was made in May 2006, although official construction on phase one of the project wasn’t commenced until April 2012. The streetcar is just one aspect of a 20-year, $2.1 billion regional transportation plan created by the Tucson City Council.
As is customary in many projects, the actual construction time for the streetcar railway proved to be much longer than the estimated time; officials promised the streetcar would open in late 2013, while the system didn’t officially open until mid-2014. Construction delays, as well as additional, unexpected costs that caused the project to total at $75 million (excluding operational costs) have caused many Tucsonans to question the value of the project.
According to a poll conducted by The Gregorian Chant, only 21% of the student body has taken a ride on the streetcar, but 59% of those who had enjoyed their experience. Unfortunately, due to the fact that the streetcar covers only 3.9 miles in a fairly spread-out city, it does fail to act as a convenient option for much of The Gregory School student population, and Tucson at large.
As someone who lives directly along the route of the Tucson streetcar and watches it pass my house daily, I have a complicated relationship with it. During the construction of its rails on my block and Main Gate Square, the road was completely blocked off for three hot summer months with large, unattractive gates. This made traveling to the numerous shops and restaurants on this area difficult for many Tucsonans, myself included.
Although I understand the necessity of construction during the summer to avoid inconveniencing the large college population, it definitely had a measurable impact on the already struggling small businesses in a difficult recession. In only a few months, numerous shops in both Main Gate Square and on 4th Avenue had announced their closure.
Nonetheless, I was excited for the opening of the streetcar, particularly after watching it drive past my house multiple times a day during its months of testing. It boasted eight “Made in America” vehicles, which each hold 148 passengers, a cheap one-way $1.50 fare, and a supposedly convenient swipe fare card system. Not to mention, as someone unable to drive, like much of The Gregory School student body, the streetcar provided me with an easy mode of transportation. It also has air conditioning – an easy sell.
Unfortunately, when I rode the streetcar for the first time in early August, I wasn’t impressed. Obviously, the streetcar possesses all of the normal impediments of public transport: you often encounter a long wait, as there are only six cars at maximum used at a time and only so many stops. The streetcar is also crowded, and you should be prepared to ride without a seat if you take it during the weekend.
Additionally, the streetcar is just plain slow. If you’d like to get somewhere within a few blocks quickly, you could get there much more rapidly if you just ride your bike. For someone like me, who lives along the route and might be considered the target benefactor of the project, walking is definitely more efficient in the long run.
Finally, of the five times I’ve tried to ride the streetcar in the past month, the vending machine at the stop nearest to my house has been out of order twice, failing to accept cash or cards. You might hope that such a highly anticipated contribution to our community would be a little more streamlined and reliable.
Ultimately though, plenty of Tucsonans have loved their experience on the streetcar and the service it provides to our community, regardless of its flaws. Perhaps its greatest gift to the Tucson area is an elevation of our city as a large metropolis; it puts us among the presence of other modern, highly populated American capitals – from Denver, to Portland, to Boston, the streetcar provides Tucson with a much-needed modern edge.
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