Special Business Report

The Sun Link alignment includes both UA and Main Gate
Square, both popular centers for entertainment and more.
Photo by Tom Spitz, photo assistant Joseph Boldt.

Sam Credio, transit administrator for the City of
Tucson’s Department of Transportation, enjoys
taking the streetcar with his family.
Photo by James Patrick.

Fletcher McCusker, chair of the Rio Nuevo Board,
has witnessed an enormous development
spurt all along the streetcar line.
Photo by James Patrick.

Fred Ronstadt, executive director of the Fourth Avenue
Merchants Association, says that the “Avenue” is looking
into holding more activities and events tied into the streetcar.
Photo by James Patrick.

A LINK to Tomorrow

On June 14, 1959, a grinning Walt Disney, in his trademark gray suit and tie, stepped up to the front of his eponymous theme park’s shiniest new attraction and cut the ribbon that would launch a whole new mode of transportation for the facility: the monorail.

Almost 60 years later, Tucson is the place where an electric rail line takes visitors not through Tomorrowland, Frontierland and Fantasyland, but five distinct districts that offer such a dazzling range of shopping, dining, and entertainment options that Sun Link riders can be forgiven for imagining they’ve entered Walt’s park.

Notes Sam Credio, transit administrator for the City of Tucson’s Department of Transportation, “We joke sometimes that the streetcar is a form of ‘transportainment.’ You can get somewhere, but it’s also very entertaining just to be on it.”

More than three and a half years after taking its first paying passengers on the 3.9-mile trek through the heart of the city center, the Sun Link modern streetcar has mixed together fun and function and become something that the original planners could have never envisioned: a nearly magical game changer for the Old Pueblo.

Forging the Link

“Tucson’s streetcar began revenue service in July 2014,” says Credio. “The project cost $196 million. It was a combination of Regional Transportation Authority money, local funding matches, and a TIGER [the federal government’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery] grant. It was one of the largest TIGER grants ever awarded. What’s interesting is we are the most-successful, longest streetcar startup in the country. There are definitely other streetcar systems that are successful, but a lot of them are one-mile or two-mile loops. Typically, cities will start small and then expand out, but we went ahead and did almost four miles in one shot.”

Tucson started the process by peering over its neighbors’ fences to discover how light rail systems were working out in cities such as Portland, Oregon, and San Diego, California. Now, however, Sun Link is the line that’s being studied. “Scottsdale is looking at us in terms of doing something similar,” says Fletcher McCusker, chairman of the board of Rio Nuevo. “Most of the light rail systems around the country were made for transportation. They run to the airport, downtown, or to the hotels.”

But although Sun Link won’t take riders across town, it is one cog in a much bigger machine that will. “We have a transit system, and the streetcar is one part of it that can move people in and around the city,” explains Credio. Sun Link riders can use their passes to get on Sun Tran buses and UA’s Cat Tran system, as well as take some of Sun Tran’s shuttle routes.

And thanks to a very recent addition to the city’s transportation system, they can even two-wheel it to and from Sun Link stops. Last fall, the City of Tucson wheeled out the Tugo Bike Share program, operated by Shift Transit, which will ultimately have 36 self-service, solar-powered kiosks around town. More than 300 bikes will be available through the program for daily, monthly, or even annual rentals. McCusker already has witnessed how much crossover there is between the bike users and the streetcar riders, especially on locations such as Tumamoc Hill, just west of “A” Mountain. “The first week of the program we had 1,000 bike share users. A lot of them are using the bike to connect to the streetcar. They ride to a destination, park it in the kiosk, and jump on the streetcar. We’ve seen that with the Tumamoc walkers. There’s a bike kiosk at the western terminus. You can catch the streetcar, jump on the bike, ride to the hill, do your walk, and never have to get in your car. There are little things like that I don’t think anybody planned for originally. Most of it is just a happy accident.”

Bikes are even allowed on the streetcar, making it easy to get around the downtown and adjacent areas without ever using a gas-powered vehicle.

Five for Delighting

Boarding the streetcar at the eastern terminus on 2nd Street on the UA campus, you feel a pleasantly tingling sense of anticipation. What adventures await you down the alignment?

If you travel the entire 3.9 miles, you’ll pass through all five districts: UA, Main Gate Square, Fourth Avenue Business District, Downtown, and the Mercado. Each one has its own personality and areas to explore.

UA is not only a research hub and the incubator for countless innovations in the science sector, it’s also where our beloved Wildcats play their home games. Additionally, it’s the site of premier performing arts concerts and plays at Centennial Hall, Stevie Eller Dance Theater, Crowder and Holsclaw Halls, and the Marroney and Tornabene Theatres. If visual arts are your thing, there is the UA Museum of Art, several fine art galleries, and the Center for Creative Photography. The Arizona State Museum, Arizona History Museum and Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium also are must-see destinations. And that only scratches the surface.

Main Gate Square, named for its position just west of the university’s main gate, has enough to offer to keep you occupied from morning until the wee hours, including more than 20 retail shops, 30 restaurants, and places where you can get services ranging from a haircut to a an aroma treatment body wrap to a tattoo.

A very short trip away on the streetcar line is historic Fourth Avenue, about which Fourth Avenue Merchants Association Executive Director Fred Ronstadt says, “We have 140 locally owned businesses on the Avenue, and every single one of the owners are independent entrepreneurs who have invested their heart and soul in the center of our community. Their passion definitely shows.” Indeed it does, from the restaurants to the nightclubs to the retailers to the service providers, the colorful and eclectic mix found on the Avenue is unrivaled elsewhere in Southern Arizona for its diversity.

Going through the Fourth Avenue underpass brings streetcar riders straight into Downtown, where a revitalization boom is echoing throughout the area. There are more than 80 restaurants and bars Downtown, in excess of 40 retail shops, and a wide range of services (including city, state and federal offices), venues for concerts and movies, and museums and galleries, including the Children’s Museum Tucson, the Tucson Museum of Art, MOCA, and the Arizona Historical Society’s Downtown History Museum.

The Little Economic Engine That Could

Though the modern streetcar didn’t invent any of the districts, it certainly drew attention and money to them. Says Credio, “It was the shot in the arm that Downtown needed for a really long time.”

McCusker adds that the effect hasn’t just been felt Downtown. “What really surprised us is every developer that we talked to wanted to be on the streetcar line. If you look at the activity … along the alignment became ‘waterfront property’ — the property that was the most in demand.”

Everyone from restaurateurs, to hotel developers, to student housing builders, wanted to be along the line, or within close proximity. Even Caterpillar, which is moving its regional headquarters here (expected completion date for the new building: March 2019). “They were really excited about being close to a mode of transportation like the streetcar,” observes Credio. “In fact, I remember several times when they were in town and we gave them tours of the streetcar and its facilities, showed them how to ride it and where it goes, and they were very excited to being close to the stop at the west end of the line. They are one of those great additions to bring money into the city.”

Traveling along the streetcar line, you see signs of expansion, new building, and remodeling everywhere. There are numerous exciting new restaurants, a hip, urban hotel, and apartments and condos to accommodate the influx of Tucsonans who want to live in or near Downtown.

“It used to be that retail follows rooftops,” says Ronstadt, “and for our renaissance, it’s been the other way around. But it’s a very exciting time where we’re seeing a lot of interest for people to redevelop some of these properties.”

And Straight On ’Til Morning

If there’s one thing we know about Walt Disney, it’s that he was always looking ahead to tomorrow. The streetcar has been a big success as both a way of taking people to and from dining, shopping and entertainment experiences, and revving up interest in investing dollars in the areas around the alignment. What might it help bring about next?

One thing that will continue is adjustments to the system’s service. The streetcar runs until 2 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, but cuts back services during the winter school break and over the summer. Depending upon demand, those hours may be expanded year-round, as more people relocate around the alignment and want to ride later hours. Also, the length of time (headway) between cars running may change to get riders onto the cars faster during peak periods.

Expansion of the line is another issue that has received much scrutiny, with differing opinions. McCusker observes that it’s an expensive proposition, with each mile costing about $50 million to build. “Every now and then people fantasize about taking it north on Campbell, or east to El Con, or even to the airport, but when you look at the cost, and the disruption, it’s just impractical,” he says. “I don’t think there’s enough private sector interest to fund something of that magnitude.”

Credio isn’t dismayed, however. “We are working with PAG [Pima Association of Governments] on an implementation plan that evaluates the future of high-capacity transit in Tucson. We’re looking at buses, rapid transit on certain corridors, as well as the expansion of the streetcar. That’s the ultimate goal. We do want to see it expanded. The question is, where? Everyone has an opinion: should it go to the airport? Should it go north? And the answer to all those questions is yes! We want it to go to all those places. The capital investment in the streetcar is very large, so it needs to make sense, and we want to plan that out very thoughtfully.”
In the meantime, there are many developments in and around the alignment that are progressing with light-rail speed. “The Coronado Apartments on 9th Street are completed,” says Ronstadt, “and Trinity Presbyterian on West University is redeveloping for market-rate apartments, retail and office space.”

“The construction on the container village — the MSA Annex — on the west side just finished up,” says McCusker. “They are right across the street from Caterpillar on the other side of the bridge. There are something like 50 former shipping containers there that have been opened as restaurants, retail, and a band stage. They are totally leased up. I think it’s going to be huge. And guess what? There is a streetcar stop and a bike kiosk right there.”

Aside from the physical structures going up, Sun Link will continue to forge partnerships to encourage ridership. Already running is “Take the Link to the Rink,” which offers incentives for fans going to Tucson Roadrunner hockey games at the TCC Arena to take the streetcar. During Small Business Saturday, rides were free, as they also are each year in August around the anniversary of the streetcar. Additionally, there have been events where the streetcar played a part, with live music and even theatrical performances on the cars. Says Ronstadt, “We don’t have anything specific planned right now, but certainly that’s something we want to continue doing. We’ll do it strategically, whether it’s for a holiday or a specific event.”

It could be, however, that the streetcar continues to be one of those things that needs very little ornamentation to draw adherents. “There’s something about a rail system,” concludes Ronstadt. “Even though ours is modern, up-to-date and sleek, there’s still in the back of people’s minds a nostalgia for rail. Especially if you think about Fourth Avenue and Downtown and their history. Before the modern streetcar, we had a regular running historic trolley on Fourth Avenue and University Boulevard, and people enjoyed sharing an experience that the forefathers of Tucson had. A hundred years ago, a streetcar was more of a necessity than a novelty. Today, it creates opportunities to get out of your car and enjoy the city center. I think that’s what everyone is looking for now. It’s not so much about things anymore — people want experiences. And the streetcar opens up a vast treasure trove for those who get on it and really use it.” TL