Desert Transit: The Tucson Transit Tale - TransitCenter
April 13, 2015
Desert Transit: The Tucson Transit Tale
Tucson's Sunlink Streetcar Photo Credit: Matt Johnson, Used with a Creative Commons Licence

Tucson’s Sunlink Streetcar Photo Credit: Matt Johnson, Used with a Creative Commons Licence

In the middle of the Sonoran desert, surrounded by five towering mountain ranges and amidst gangly Saguaro cacti lies a little heralded and ongoing transit story. Tucson, Arizona is certainly no transit desert.

Yet Tucson is at a crossroads. The region is at the midpoint of a twenty year tax increase for transportation managed by the Regional Transportation Authority, known as the RTA. Combined with the launch of a streetcar line connecting the University of Arizona, Downtown Tucson and the developing Mercado district, this city is positioned to build off of its institutional and infrastructure investments. On the other hand, with total system ridership declining, and struggles at City Hall over how to fund the operations of a system with declining revenues, Tucson may lose its momentum if it fails to change how residents perceive and fund transit.

Sun Tran Total Annual Ridership Credit:

Sun Tran Total Annual Ridership Credit:

Which direction it goes will depend on the efforts of Tucson’s transit advocates.

After riding into Tucson with the morning light on Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, the TransitCenter team was greeted by Joy Herr-Cardillo and Gene Caywood of the Southern Arizona Transit Advocates. By connecting into national learning networks, using targeted voting data to inform their plans, bringing together opposing interests and rallying political leadership, Tucson’s advocates have effectively used strategies that we see the most successful advocates use.

Tucson’s achievements owe a large debt to their work, and Joy was kind enough to share their story:

Interview edited for length

Kirk Hovenkotter: How did Southern Arizona Transit Advocates (SATA) get its start?

Joy Herr-Cardillo Vice President of SATA: The core group of folks that make up SATA first got together back in late 2000. Several of the founding members including now State Senator Steve Farley, Clague Van Slyke III, and Gene Caywood, were participating in a citizen’s advisory committee for a livability and circulation study that the City was doing for one of our collector cross streets. While City staff were trying to steer the committee to support major widening, the participants came to the conclusion that what the street needed was more of a road diet with better transit and bike lanes. When staff resisted that idea, these folks decided it was time for grassroots action to change the direction that Tucson was heading. They named their group “Tucsonans for Sensible Transportation.” They invited folks to an initial meeting and it drew a huge crowd—as I recall it was between 50-60 people. We put together a Steering Committee of about 10 core people, and those are the folks that mostly make up SATA today.

KH: Was there a breakthrough moment on transit in Tucson? A moment where advocates, city staff, and electeds came together to push the agenda forward?

JHC: Yes, after we defeated the city’s “road plan” in 2002 and the homebuilders and car dealers defeated our transit and alternative modes focused citizens’ initiative in 2003, Steve Farley brokered a “peace” and got the two sides to collaborate. Working together, they were able to get the legislature to pass authorizing legislation for the RTA, and then began the long process of working out a plan to put before the voters. The idea of including a modern streetcar in the RTA plan grew out of a map that Steve put together which showed the election results for our failed initiative. What jumped out at both of us was the fact that the measure had actually won the vote in the central city precincts. As we looked at the core of support, both of us flashed back to 2002 Rail~Volution conference in Washington D.C. where we had met Charlie Hales and first learned about Portland’s streetcar. Once the 2003 initiative failed, that opened the possibility of exploring something a bit more smaller scale that could be located in the part of the city where the residents supported the idea. It also provided us with a response to critics who had claimed that the earlier plan was “too ambitious” and we should start with a “pilot project.” We still had to work hard to sell the project to skeptics, but it was encouraging when the Director of the city’s transportation department suggested using funds that had previously been approved for a light rail feasibility study for a streetcar feasibility study.

KH: How has the perception of transit in Tucson changed due to the creation of the RTA and the implementation of the streetcar?

JHC: The economic impact of the streetcar on downtown in particular seems to have converted a lot of the early doubters and nonbelievers.

Whenever I ride the streetcar, I see people of all ages. I do think that the streetcar has gotten more people riding transit (particularly the UA students and people who live in neighborhoods near the route) but I’m not sure how much that has translated into more people on buses. Part of the challenge is that the hours of operation for the buses don’t always coincide with the peak demand for the streetcar. For example, the streetcar runs until 2 am on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights but the buses stop much earlier than that.

KH: What challenges lie ahead for your organization and transit in Tucson?

JHC: The two big challenges for transit in Tucson are finding a better way to cover operational costs of the entire system, and finding funding for streetcar extensions and expanded service. Right now, the City’s general fund is the major source of funding for operations and every year, there is a battle between the City and transit riders over the threat of increasing fares and/or cutting service. Our group has been looking into possible ways to establish a dedicated funding source that would get transit out of the annual budget battle. We have some ideas, but no matter what we propose, we anticipate that getting buy-in among the City Councilmembers will be a heavy lift—although I suppose they are as motivated to find some way to solve this perennial problem.

KH: What advice would you give to other advocates in Tucson-sized cities around the country?

JHC: 1. You’re in it for the long haul. Don’t give up but also, pace yourself so that you don’t burn out.

Sometimes you need to step back and take a break. Several of us took a short break immediately after our initiative failed, even while others continued the effort with the RTA. Once the RTA passed and the streetcar was included, we were able to scale back our efforts while city staff and transportation professionals managed the implementation. We ramped back up again to generate public support and excitement for the project while we all waited patiently (and sometimes not so patiently) for opening day.

2. Make sure you understand how transportation planning works in your community.

We were fortunate to have transportation professionals in our group (though the vast majority of us are not experts in the field). The institutional knowledge that these folks brought to the table was invaluable. They made sure that transit alternatives were included in long term transportation plans, so that when the time was right and the opportunity arose, all the pieces were in place. We could never have done it without their expertise.

3. Find allies among elected officials and city/county/MPO staff.

We were fortunate to have the support of Congressman Raul Grijalva from the very beginning. He was one of the first to support our citizen’s initiative, and was completely on board. That support turned into a critical earmark early in the process. Later, both Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and Congressman Grijalva were instrumental in helping us win a TIGER grant. It can be harder with staff when the issues are politically controversial, and they have to maintain neutrality. Oftentimes, you find out later that the individuals who may have seemed indifferent were actually very supportive of your efforts, but were constrained by their official role from being very open about it.

4. Remember that a big part of being a transit advocate is educating people.

Tucson, like most western cities, is very car-centric and sometimes people just can’t imagine living any other way. When we first started talking about bringing light rail to Tucson, most of the people we spoke to had never seen it and sometimes had never even heard of it. People immediately thought of NYC and subways and trotted out the old trope that “light rail wouldn’t work here because we don’t have enough density.” Luckily, we were able to counter those arguments by pointing to other western cities like Salt Lake City, Denver, Dallas and, eventually Phoenix, but that conventional wisdom persists.

One of the most notable citizens to have a change of heart was former Mayor Bob Walkup. He went from being an adamant opponent of our citizens’ initiative in 2003 to one of the biggest proponents of the Streetcar project just a few years later, working tirelessly to get the federal funding we needed. On opening weekend we had copies of a map of the Streetcar starter line and asked folks to draw where they thought the next extension should be. When Mayor Bob turned his in he had drawn extensions in every direction with the resulting map looking remarkably like the map included on our 2003 initiative!

Learn more about the Southern Arizona Transit Advocates at their website.

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