Tucson, we did this. Together.
Our modern streetcar is a new mode of transportation that has already proved its worth as an economic engine. It has already produced more than $1 billion in development within three blocks of its four-mile route, creating thousands of new jobs and hundreds of new businesses along the way.
This kind of regional powerhouse doesn’t just appear by accident, and it’s not created overnight. Success required a broad-based community effort, including a critical mass of people willing to make the right case to the right people at the right times.
The visionary founders of Old Pueblo Trolley, Gene Caywood and Dick Guthrie, have been working toward rail transit in Tucson for decades. Fifteen years ago a small group of citizens called Tucsonans for Sensible Transportation (TST) jump-started the movement while advocating for better transit as part of the city of Tucson’s Fifth-Sixth Street Advisory Group.
I remember the genesis moment well — Clague Van Slyke III and I were watching a consultant’s PowerPoint when a slide appeared with the title: “Obstacles to Throughput.” The first bullet point was “Pedestrians.”
We agreed that it was time to restore humanity to our transportation system, with rail transit key to our efforts. TST was officially formed in early 2001, quickly growing from five to 1,600 members as we used an old overhead projector to present the case for a human-based multimodal transportation system to any group that would have us.
Public interest attorney Joy Herr-Cardillo and I attended the national RailVolution conference that fall and heard Charlie Hales (now Mayor of Portland, Oregon) share the huge benefits of a new modern streetcar to his community and its economy.
We were galvanized into action.
Volunteers stood at Casa Video for a year gathering 18,000 signatures to place our Citizen’s Comprehensive Transportation Initiative for street maintenance, bus and rail transit, and bicycle/pedestrian projects on the November 2003 ballot. Our political inexperience and financial opposition from car dealers and homebuilders derailed our plan.
The week after that hard defeat, I met with the homebuilders and asked to work together. While we differed on our preferred modes, it was clear we both agreed that our region must invest in transportation infrastructure of all kinds.
Conversations like these between former rivals led to the citizen-driven Regional Transportation Authority plan. This time the car dealers and homebuilders spent money for us instead of against — for a plan that actually had more buses and bikeways than our original dream and provided the local funds for the modern streetcar.
For the first time in decades regional voters overwhelmingly approved the RTA and the streetcar at the polls. New champions came on board, including former skeptics.
Mayor Bob Walkup became a key force in obtaining the remaining streetcar financing from the largest TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant — $63 million — awarded by the US Department of Transportation in 2010. Leadership of the city and RTA have gone on to deliver our single most significant transportation project in decades.
I was lucky to get a preview ride on the modern streetcar recently. I have spent many hours riding rail transit in other cities around the world. My feelings of joy were indescribable as I sat back in Tucson’s own rail vehicle and watched my own transformed city roll by — back and forth for three hours.
I was overwhelmed with gratitude for all those who have helped — for early champions, for rivals turned allies, for dedicated city, county, and RTA staff and elected officials, for volunteers, for the construction team, for the drivers and mechanics, for the business owners on the route, and so many others. This moment could not have happened without all of us.
Now we are at that point so many have anticipated for so long. We have our streetcar. We did this. Together.
Where do we want to go next, Tucson?