After years of construction and months of testing, Tucson’s streetcar system will start carrying passengers on Friday — and for the first three days, rides on the $197 million line will be free.
Once the train opens its pneumatic doors to customers, the rules of sharing the road — and eventually, the potential for costly tickets — will change for everyone on its route, from the west side, to downtown, to North Fourth Avenue and the University of Arizona.
In time, bicyclists may face the biggest changes, as an official says the city is considering the possibility of moving them off of North Fourth.
FIRST, A CELEBRATION
Before any of that happens, there will be the obligatory ribbon-cutting. And for a project of such magnitude, just one ribbon is not enough.
Friday morning will see a series of snippings, one in each of the five districts served by the streetcar, with the first ceremony starting at 7 a.m. in the Mercado district, at the west end of the line.
There will also be ribbon stops in the Fourth Avenue, UA and Main Gate Square districts.
The main event will start at 9 a.m. downtown at East Congress Street and North Fifth Avenue, with actual passenger service to follow starting at 10 a.m.
Each district will hold several events throughout free-ride weekend.
Expect dignitaries to be swarming like swallows to Capistrano.
One to keep an eye out for is Gene Caywood, one of the first visionaries who saw a future for a trolley in Tucson.
Caywood, president and CEO of Old Pueblo Trolley, became a fan of rail transit after riding the San Diego Trolley light rail when it first opened in 1981.
“That was the first time I had been on a modern light-rail system,” Caywood said. “I became instantly convinced that this is something Tucson needs to have.”
Caywood’s trolley line, which ran between the UA Main Gate and downtown for 17 years, ceased operation in 2011 so the new line could be built.
Also, look for state Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, who, along with Caywood, formed Citizens- and Tucsonans for Sensible Transportation, linked advocacy groups that campaigned against transportation plans and sales-tax hikes that excluded rail. They were key in getting the train included in the 2006 Regional Transportation Authority Plan.
And then there’s U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, whose earmarking of funds for a streetcar in a 2003 House bill opened the door for the city to receive the federal funds that paid for most of the system.
Grijalva said he knew at the time a streetcar line could help revitalize downtown. “We got behind it early,” he said. “I knew what it could mean for the city.”
“We think it’s going to bring a lot of new business,” said Debbie Chandler, executive director of the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association. “We did the hard part, now we’re ready to reap the glory.”
Once the fanfare is complete, passengers will have to learn how to use the system, while motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians will have to get used to sharing the road with the streetcar.
Here is an overview of what to expect:
There has been much discussion among city officials, community leaders and bicycle advocates over the past several months regarding how cars, bicycles and pedestrians will co-exist with the streetcar.
City officials are examining the possibility of moving bicyclists off of North Fourth and designating one of the parallel streets, such as Third Avenue, as a bike route, said streetcar project manager Shellie Ginn.
“We’re looking at parallel routes to get bicyclists off the streetcar route completely,” she said.
In the meantime, the city has embarked on a campaign to educate people on how to share the road.
IT STOPS, YOU STOP
For example, in areas where the streetcar stop is in the middle of the street, motorists and bicyclists are not allowed to pass when it’s picking up and dropping off passengers.
“When the streetcar stops, don’t try to create your own lane,” Ginn said. “You put people in harm’s way.”
Also, in some areas, such as Fourth Avenue, where there is limited space for bikes between parked cars and the streetcar tracks, cars are not allowed to pass bicycles unless they can give them three feet of clearance. If not, the cars have to wait. The streetcar is also prohibited from passing bicycles in those areas.
The city has installed directional markings to guide bikes across the tracks, as well as green bike boxes at certain intersections to separate riders from vehicles and give them a designated space.
There are also additional signs along the streetcar route to guide bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists on such things as where it is and is not permissible to get into a designated streetcar lane, which sometimes doubles as a right-turn lane.
As for pedestrians, they need to use the crosswalks along the line instead of jaywalking across the tracks, Ginn said.
“The streetcars are quiet vehicles run by electricity. Be aware,” she said.
City officials also want people to park their vehicles in the designated spots along the route.
An improperly parked car, one that sets out just a smidge too far from the curb, could block the streetcar and temporarily shut down the system, she said.
It could also be expensive for the person who doesn’t park within the lines. Parking violations cost $188, officials said.
Free is temporary
Fares for the streetcar are the same as the cost to ride Sun Tran’s buses.
It’ll cost $1.50 to ride one way and $4 for an all-day pass. Passengers can also use their SunGo cards.
An economy fare for those who qualify is 50 cents.
There are ticket machines that accept cash and credit cards at each streetcar stop. Passengers can also buy tickets at any store or outlet that sells Sun Tran passes.
The route will use an honor system to collect fares, meaning drivers will not monitor passengers to see if fares are paid.
However, the route will use “fare enforcement agents” to randomly check tickets along the route and catch any potential freeloaders, Ginn said.
The agents will spend the first few weeks educating passengers who are caught without paying their fare and showing them how to purchase a ticket.
But, “eventually we will start citing,” she said.
Those tickets will range from $100 to $2,500.