The two-year design phase of the Broadway Boulevard Project is reaching its final months. And not without controversy over funding and design elements.
A successful outcome will require broad agreement between the Regional Transportation Authority, Pima County, Tucson’s mayor and council, and the many community stakeholders including residents, businesses and visitors along Tucson’s historic Sunshine Mile and west to downtown.
The Broadway redesign is a bellwether project that will set a highly visible precedent for regional planning in future decades. The result will signal to what degree local government is willing and able to scale infrastructure projects to actual needs and preferences. Importantly, the design outcome will be an indicator whether the region can flexibly adapt to significant changes in our economy, demographics, urban design standards, energy and resource costs, and serious Southwest climate change.
From the beginning, the Broadway Coalition and city-appointed Citizens Task Force have questioned the wisdom of rigidly following the 2006 ballot language specifying a 150-foot-wide, eight-lane roadway. This would require removal of more than 115 buildings in the right-of-way. Such demolition would cost more than $42 million, not counting the lost tax base these historic properties represent.
The 2006 RTA Plan was based on inflated projections of traffic volumes that have changed very little in the past two decades. The major question has been why expand car-lane capacity when recent studies show that people are increasingly shifting to other modes of mobility. Should our limited public funds be invested in unnecessary infrastructure?
Community stakeholders support a maximum 100-foot width design that could accommodate a five-lane option with significant pedestrian, bicycle and transit improvements that also anticipate future high-capacity transit. That system would serve local and suburban demand to the east and could be partially funded by savings from eliminating 50 feet in right-of-way and construction costs and tax revenues from increased destination business activity.
One only needs to look at the transformational investments along the modern streetcar line including University of Arizona Medical Center, UA Maingate, West University, downtown and the westside Mercado District to see that vibrant urban change and economic activity can happen without widening roadways.
Transit-oriented development not only preserves historic values but is currently the most successful type of development in Tucson. Visually beautiful places where people walk, bike, meet and share life is what the younger as well as older generations are demanding in urban settings where growth is occurring.
The research supporting the 100-foot width is robust. Rapid suburban population growth is no longer the key to future prosperity because of higher resource costs and climate impacts as well as the preference for urban living by the “millennial” generation. Additionally, the U.S. spends nearly $900 billion per year due to automobile-related accidents.
The rising cost of oil also looms large as a design factor. This impacts road fuels and asphalt prices. The truth is we built our economy on $20 per barrel oil and we are now in the era of $100-plus oil. Per capita driving behavior since World War II shows continuous increase until 2005 when it began its current slide downward.
It is time for the RTA, county and city to address the realities of the 21st century and let go of 2006 assumptions and the wishful thinking that everything will return to the world of 10 years ago.
What’s needed now is a significant change of heart to match the serious choices ahead.