As we celebrate the opening of Tucson’s modern rail system this week, it is important to recognize the story for what it is: The final chapter in a larger narrative of federally funded downtown redevelopment, authored by two generations of community activists, public officials of both parties and staff professionals.
All of this occurred as a result of the work of three mayors and City Councils, and dedicated, stalwart public servants including Sens. Dennis DeConcini, John McCain and Jon Kyl, and Reps. Ed Pastor, Jim Kolbe, Raúl Grijalva, Gabrielle Giffords and Ron Barber.
The streetcar was initially the vision of Steve Farley, a young Tucson artist and activist whose passion for the local community brought him to his current place in the Arizona Senate. More than a decade ago, Farley’s big dream struck many as an idealistic notion verging on fanciful. Naysayers maligned the plan as a “Trolley to Nowhere,” but Congressman Raul Grijalva disagreed. The congressman’s wisdom and foresight caused him to insist that the project be included in the massive federal Transportation Bill of 2005. In subsequent years, his unwavering support has helped keep the streetcar alive and on track.
During his two terms from 1991 to 1999, Mayor George Miller favored rail and scored the early federal investments in the downtown. That momentum could have come to an end, however, when city leadership was handed over to his Republican successor Bob Walkup. Fortunately, Walkup’s initial skepticism regarding the streetcar was overcome by a rigorous devotion to progress abetted by his years working in the engineering field. Walkup recognized a good idea when he saw one, and soon viewed the project as a vast opportunity rather than a reckless boondoggle.
Making the streetcar dream a reality required persistence throughout changing administrations and economic climates. At times it also required sharp elbows. As Tucson’s representative in Washington, I personally witnessed a tense encounter between Mayor Walkup and then Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, during which we were informed that the project was all but dead. The usually amiable mayor turned steely, and the meeting did not end until a compromise saved the streetcar.
Meanwhile, upon hearing of looming budget trouble with the George W. Bush administration, Congressman Grijalva pulled off a minor political miracle, securing a $2 million earmark for fiscal year 2009 for a project that didn’t yet officially exist.
When the arrival of the first Obama administration brought to bear a large stimulus program for an economy teetering on depression, Tucson’s modern streetcar became one of nearly 4,000 competitors for a limited number of federal transportation grants. Separately and together, Mayor Walkup and Rep. Grijalva articulated their vision of a downtown transformed, impressing the Transportation Department and winning the support of a competition committee headed by Vice President Joe Biden.
When the announcement came that Tucson had won the largest rail project approved by the committee — $63 million, it was a testament to both careful planning and clever retail politics. Walkup, the indomitable salesman, made Tucson’s case with a smile and won friends in the process, including the vice president.
The toughest phase of a rail project is the actual construction. The best drawings of engineers often are reduced to puzzles when confronted by the difficulties of laying track and electricity on a mature city. When he was elected in 2011, Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and his Council and City Manager Richard Miranda inherited this daunting challenge. Rather than playing it safe, Rothschild turned into a demanding boss and creative problem-solver. His ongoing outreach to DOT ensured the delivery of eight tested and fully operational rail cars by this week’s opening.
Working in partnership with the University of Arizona, Rothschild and Miranda turned loose promises into hard ridership numbers, and called on the Eller College of Management to shape a marketing plan. When it was all said and done, Rothschild and his team completed the largest construction project in the city’s history, roughly within the $150 million budget and in time for the new school year.
Much is made of the climate of paralyzing dysfunction that too frequently characterizes politics in our times. Ultimately, Tucson’s modern streetcar is a shining example of what can occur when partisan scorekeeping is replaced by community pride, political courage and bipartisan cooperation. That’s a story worth telling more often.