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Tucson: Grassroots Campaign Sparks Nov. 4th Vote on Light Rail + Other Mobility Options

Light Rail Progress – October 2003

Tucson, Arizona voters will face a choice on 4 November 2003: Stay with the current system of de facto dependency on the automobile, and all the associated traffic headaches and cost burdens ... or vote for Propositions 200 and 201 to commit Tucson to an alternative mobility system of light rail transit (LRT), dramatic bus service improvements, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructural upgrades, and other ambitious measures to provide Tucsonans more and better options in how they get around the city.

The Tucson transit initiative is highly unusual because it originated in a grassroots movement and doesn't seem to have the united backing of the city's power structure. Citizens for a Sensible Transportation Solution (CFASTS) managed to convince about 15% of Tucson's registered voters to sign its petitions to put the plan and the tax measures on the ballot.

The centerpiece of the CFASTS mobility plan is a 13-mile LRT starter system, routed mainly in the city's Broadway corridor. interfaced with this is 47 miles of Quality Bus ("Bus Rapid Transit") service, a high-level express and limited-stop bus system upgrade reaching into virtually every corner and cranny of metro Tucson (see map below).

Tucson LRT-bus map

On top of these major expansions of modern transit service, the currently operating Old Pueblo Trolley (a tourist-oriented electric streetcar line) would be extended from the University of Arizona through Downtown to Rio Nuevo as a shuttle operating daily with 10-15 minute headways to relieve parking problems along the entire route. New sidewalks and bikeways would also be built throughout Tucson neighborhoods to make the entire community more livable and people-friendly.

New revenue sources proposed

To finance these projects, new dedicated sources of revenue are proposed, generating a minimum of $59.8 million per year on average over the first 20 years of the plan (based on the conservative assumption of 2% annual economic growth and conservative estimates of increasing ridership on the transit system). The sources of this new revenue are proposed as follows:

· 0.3% increase to the City of Tucson sales tax

· 4% increase in the City of Tucson construction sales tax and the dedication of that tax to these projects

CFASTS planners also predict an increase in revenues resulting from increased ridership drawn to the expanded and upgraded transit service (they are promising no increase in fares). The entire comprehensive plan is projected to cost the average Tucson family less than $30 per year – potentially saving them thousands of dollars in reduced transportation expenses.

The mobility plan before voters also stipulates that the City of Tucson's current General Fund contribution to its Transportation Department will be maintained at existing levels, and will be adjusted for inflation. This is intended to ensure that the new revenues will be used for the new projects, and not to substitute for current and future General Fund contributions.

The CFASTS proposal is very explicit on how the new tax revenues would be used, allocating them as follows:

· 40% to vastly improve Sun Tran service and Van Tran service, and implement a the extensive Quality Bus ("Bus Rapid Transit") service

· 22% to design, build, and operate the proposed LRT system

· 20% to maintain Tucson's neighborhood streets and immediately address deferred street repairs

· 10% to build new sidewalks and bikeways throughout our neighborhoods "to make our community more livable and people-friendly..."

Tucson Old Pueblo Trolley· 6% to extend the Old Pueblo Trolley (photo at right)

· 2% to improve enforcement of Tucson's existing traffic laws "with the objective of improving safety..."

Expanded transit + light rail

Tucson enhanced bus map

Clearly, about 40 percent of the proposed tax revenues would be dedicated to major improvements in the existing bus system and a significant expansion and upgrade of bus services. This plan enables expanded bus service ro reach virtually every neighborhood and activity center in the city. (See map above.) However, most of the media and public attention has been focused on the ambitious LRT plan, for which just over a fifth of the total projected revenues would be allocated.

Tucson LRT simulationSimulation of LRT in Broadway corridor, near stadium.
[Graphic: Tucsonans for Sensible Transportation]

The proposed LRT starter system (see map below) is actually a 2-branch (from downtown) system which would run mostly along East Broadway, East Sixth Street, through downtown Tucson, and along South Sixth Avenue, with a connection through the University of Arizona. (See map below.) The 13-mile line is projected to cost approximately $455 to $500 million (of which about half would be covered by federal funds). That's about $35 to $38 million per mile.
[Sources: Arizona Daily Star, 1 July 2003, 16 June 2003; inside Tucson Business, 18 Aug. 2003]

Tucson LRT map

These costs contrast starkly with the expense of trying to accommodate mobility purely through roadway expansion. For example, expanding the interstate (i-10) would cost $20 million a mile; widening Speedway, a major arterial, $30 million a mile; and installing a new crosstown freeway, $100 million a mile, according to city and county estimates.
[Source: inside Tucson Business Aug 18, 2003]

And those costs don't account for the fact that – because of "induced traffic" generated by adjacent development and other factors – you must build about four lanes of roadway to obtain just one lane of actual increased capacity! Plus, they don't include the tremendous costs borne by private motor vehicle users – the costs of all those cars, SUVs, and other vehicles, for example (meanwhile, the projected LRT costs do include the railcars). And ... they don't include the cost of the parking needed to store all those vehicles!

CFASTS points out that its plan builds in its own contingency and financing costs.

During the early and later years, the revenues will collect more money than the plan will spend. The early money can be banked away to be used during the middle years of construction, when there will be more need for revenues. Bonds may need to be issued during this period to cover up-front construction costs, but they will be paid back by surplus funds after the construction is finished and will not require additional funds. This is why the revenues we project are higher than the expenses.

And the starter LRT line is just that – a start. Eventually, CFASTS evisions the LRT system being expanded over time to include Catalina Highway, Rita Ranch, Starr Pass, and Northwest neighborhoods.

ideal conditions for light rail

In many respects, Tucson offers ideal conditions for a comprehensive LRT system and other mass transit innovations. While it's a small urban area, with just around 750,000 population, its urban-area population density compares very favorably with several other US cities operating or installing new LRT systems, as the table below indicates.

Urban Area Population Density
Persons per Square Mile)

(Urban Areas Operating or installing LRT)

Tucson Proposed 2,205
Phoenix Under construction 2,565
Dallas-Ft. Worth Operating 2,055
Houston Under construction 1,970
Salt Lake City Operating 2,305
Denver Operating 2,380
Charlotte Under construction 2,015
[Source: Texas Transportation institute, 2003 Urban Mobility Study]

As CFASTS points out,

While Tucson has lower population densities than many eastern cities, its population densities are about the same as the Sun Belt and western cities where light rail has proven successful. The real key to making a light rail system work is travel density rather than population density. Travel density results from the proper location of the rail system near major trip generators. Any light rail route designed to serve a significant number of major trip generators will attract high numbers of riders. On the trip origin end, riders do not have to live immediately adjacent to stations, but will access them by automobile, bicycle, or feeder buses. Additionally, the permanent nature of light rail will encourage the development of higher infill densities along the length of the route.

There are other favorable conditions for LRT, as well:

· Compared with most other US cities, Tucson's pre-existing freeway system is relatively less developed and offers less competition for transit ridership.

· There's no easy way practically or politically for Tucson to construct a crosstown freeway where congestion relief is needed the most.

· Congestion is encouraging people to look for alternatives right now – creating a ripe market for LRT and other major transit improvements.

· The city's southeast side is slated for massive development in decades to come; therefore, a light rail system installed in the near future can help to encourage smart, focused growth, make it economically feasible, and give people an alternative to their cars.

· Tucson has large concentrations of people who would be attracted to riding a light rail system – including University of Arizona students, children, seniors, tourists, commuters, shoppers, disabled people attracted by LRT's excellent wheelchair accessibility ... as well as existing transit riders.

"Out of the box" grassroots effort

While Tucson exhibits excellent conditions to support LRT, and the multi-modal, multi-facted plan on the ballot makes abundant sense, what's most amazing is that this plan, and these ballot measures, have originated from an "out-of-the-box" grassroots movement, and not from the top echelons of Tucson's political and economic hierarchy. indeed, much of Tucson's top-level power structure, such as the Chamber of Commerce, seems to be opposing the transit plan.

It's been an uphill struggle against traditional highway-focused mobility inertia from the start. But, to get things moving, more than 240 CFASTS volunteers gathered over 18,000 signatures from Tucson voters to place the city's first truly balanced plan for solving its transportation problems on the November 4th city ballot.

Tucson's effort provides a clue to what's critically lacking in many rail transit initiative campaigns across the USA: adequate grassroots support. Too many well-crafted, workable transit plans have been sunk through poor or nonexistent grassroots backing – as a small elite of local community leaders in city after city have tried to carry the campaign, and rally votes, solely through the force of slick media efforts, reliance on their own image, and underestimation of the ferocity and power of anti-transit crusaders.

Organizing and mobilizing grassroots efforts is a critical link in setting the stage for success. As our article Learning From 2002 Bruises: Lessons for Future Light Rail Campaigns has pointed out, "Grassroots organizing of all segments of the community is critical. The groundwork for this can and should be laid at least a year or more in advance of a vote campaign."

In any case, in Tucson, the grassroots campaign appears to be all there is supporting the rail initiative – with much of the "official" establishment on the other side! This means that CFASTS is strapped for funds to promote the transit initiative in the face of a very well-financed opposition (particularly car dealerships and sprawl-oriented homebuilders) organized in two groups: the Committee for Real Regional Transportation, and independent People Like You.

Currently, CFASTS seems to be making every dollar count, and clearly every dollar goes a long way. CFASTS has issued the following appeal:

We need your financial help to spread the word! Thanks to you, our efforts to place an excellent transportation plan on the November ballot were successfully concluded. Now we need to collect money to spread the word about Propositions 200 & 201 to all Tucson citizens, and we need money to help us accomplish that goal. Please help us by contributing what you can to our grassroots effort to improve Tucson's future for ALL of us. Send checks made out to "Citizens for a Sensible Transportation Solution" to: CFASTS, P.O. Box 41298, Tucson, AZ 85717

CFASTS notes that there are no restrictions or limits on contributions from corporations or individuals for initiative campaigns under Tucson campaign law. CFASTS also requests contributors to write their occupation and employer on their checks "so that we may comply with the City's record-keeping requirements for political contributions."

Tucson LRT simulationSimulation of Tucson LRT at station stop in boulevard median.
[Graphic: CFASTS]

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2003/10/30

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