Tucson streetcar success may spur new Scottsdale transit dialogue

A view of the modern streetcar that runs 3.9 miles of track connecting the west and east ends of downtown Tucson. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

A view of the modern streetcar that runs 3.9 miles of track connecting the west and east ends of downtown Tucson. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

Desire may be the best way to describe the growing feelings a collection of city officials have about bringing a modern streetcar rail system to the community of Scottsdale.

A collection of Scottsdale officials Thursday, Nov. 5 traveled to the city of Tucson to better understand the trials, tribulations and successes the modern streetcar has brought to that community’s downtown sector.

Officials along for the ride ranged from elected leaders and city commission members to tourism and chamber representatives who expressed an interest in getting dialogue started on bringing high-capacity-mass-transit to the city of Scottsdale.

“In my opinion, I don’t think there is a vision,” said Scottsdale Transportation Commission chairman Steve Olmsted in a Nov. 9 phone interview. “I did absolutely ask every member of council. The one thing to understand is this is just the evolution of things.”

The Scottsdale Transportation Commission, which is an advisory board made up of resident appointees to Scottsdale City Council, is in the midst of updating the community transportation master plan. The document is meant to encompass all things transit from the local government perspective.

“The type of format — just due to new technologies and options to choose — has accelerated more than even I thought. We want to be honest with everyone that we want this discussion to occur,” Mr. Olmsted said of the oftentimes contentious topic that is mass-transit in Scottsdale. “I would like to see something substantive, yes I would. We really have gotten to the point that we haven’t had any dissent, which is weird.”

Mr. Olmsted says data he is seeing points to a new generation of a workforce coming of age in Scottsdale, which is bringing an influx of different transit desires.

“If you look at the Valley Metro macro numbers — that group is growing in ridership,” he said of the millennial age group typically including anyone 18 to 34 years of age in calendar year 2015.

“It is the total immersion of the next generation of workforce in Scottsdale. There are some additional influences that weren’t there before. We have huge parking issues downtown. The additional areas of need are starting to materialize. To me it is important we have this dialog for myriad reasons.”

That dialogue will include what — if any — steps should be taken now for the city of Scottsdale to possibly bring new mass-transit options as the appetite for such a service grows within its residents, city leaders contend.

The savior of Tucson

Much of the journey to the city of Tucson was for Scottsdale leaders to learn and understand how a community of about 750,000 inhabitants has become the centrifuge of a billion-dollar regional transportation plan.

Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild talks about the struggles and successes of launching modern streetcar withing Tucson city limits. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild talks about the struggles and successes of launching modern streetcar withing Tucson city limits. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

The Sun Link streetcar project is part of the $2.1 billion Regional Transportation Plan, approved by Pima County voters in May 2006. The project is funded by the Regional Transportation Authority and through federal and other regional funds, according to sunlinkstreetcar.com.

The 3.9 miles of fixed rail meanders through downtown Tucson providing direct linkage to the University of Arizona, which has a student population around 40,000, and to what many downtown consider student housing. The streetcar reaches each of its 18 stops every 10 minutes during the day and every 20 minutes during the evening.

“You need to see and understand what was not here five years ago,” said Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild to Scottsdale delegation Nov. 5 at the Pima Association of Governments, 1 E. Broadway Blvd. in Tucson.

“That streetcar project carried this community for a couple of years. It was a huge hit. People will say this is the greatest thing that has ever happened to this community. The community has gone from naysayers to big supporters.”

According to Mayor Rothschild, the Tucson modern streetcar had 1 million riders in just 10 months of operation — two months ahead of schedule.

“We are doing it for economic development but you could do a whole lot more,” he said noting the project is not cheap to get in the ground and to operate. “If public transportation paid for itself they would call it private transportation. But this is a huge economic driver for us here in Tucson.”

With Pima County voters approving a new tax to construct and execute the regional transportation plan in 2006, proponents say the framework for success was laid. But it wasn’t until a $63 million shot in the arm through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was provided allowing the behind-the-scenes work of government lobbyists and mass-transit loyalists to pay off.

The dollars and cents of making the 3.9 miles of track pay off are:

  • Federal dollars through grant programs including TIGER and FTA total $73 million;
  • Local funding sources including RTA tax funds, county grant programs and private investment total $90.5 million;
  • Other funding sources include a city of Tucson certificate of participation grant program and the Cushing Bridge program total $33 million;
  • Total public and private investment for the Tucson modern streetcar is about $196.5 million.

The Tucson modern streetcar is a project 15 years in the making, according to Arizona Senator Steve Farley.

“There were a whole lot of people 15 years ago who thought we were nuts,” he said at the Nov. 5 meeting of the minds. “People from across the country are coming to see how we are doing this.”

Sen. Farley, who local Tucson media dubbed the “Streetcar Godfather,” says the will and heart of the people have to buy into major mass-transit projects for them to work effectively.

“If you don’t have the grassroots you cannot do this,” he said. “You have to be persistent and talk to everyone. This can be replicated but it does take a lot of work and people willing to work for something that might not happen. We have this investment and through this much development is incredible.”

A streetcar named Scottsdale?

“I enjoyed the overall size of the streetcar and I think the size is good ration relative to the downtown Tucson area,” said Scottsdale Councilwoman Virgina Korte in a Nov. 9 phone interview. “I think that can be transfered to Scottsdale — in terms of creation and size if we want to move forward with some kind of high-capacity-mass-transit.”

Virginia Korte

Virginia Korte

Councilwoman Korte and Councilwoman Linda Milhaven were the only two members of city council to take Mr. Olmsted up on his invite to Tucson.

“The amount of time and the amount of planning that took place prior to the realization of that dream (Tucson modern streetcar) was phenomenal,” she pointed out. “Even if you don’t know where the money is going to come from you have to have a plan in place. The importance of planning and having things in place cannot be overemphasized.”

Councilwoman Korte says the future needs of a community’s next generation have to be considered and mass-transit options seem to be the wave of the future, she says.

“I think one of the pitfalls that some leaders fall into is making decisions based on today and today’s reality checks,” she said. “I believe as leaders we need to come together to envision what our needs are and the needs of the next generation. We really need to start finding the future and making decisions today based on what those future needs are.”

The idea of mass-transit in Scottsdale has been a contentious political topic, Councilwoman Korte points out.

“I think it has to be developed slowly and at many levels so that everyone begins to understand the value of transportation and high-capacity transit and what the value of it is to a community. What are the ramifications of not moving forward? I think that is important to know that as well.”

Councilwoman Korte says Scottsdale has a developing critical mass of potential ridership in developing south Scottsdale employment and residential centers.

“I believe we have that critical mass at our employment centers in downtown Scottsdale,” she said of the Scottsdale Galleria shopping mall and SkySong center along McDowell Road. “I also believe our critical mass is in our tourism industry. When we have hundreds of thousands of people coming into downtown that is a critical mass.

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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