Several weeks ago, the Road Runner came across a fairly common downtown Tucson scene: a compact car was parked just west of the East Congress Street/Sixth Avenue intersection with its trunk jutting out over the white line and across the Sun Link streetcar track.
The driver of the blocked streetcar was frantically making calls and jotting down the vehicle’s information while his passengers twiddled their thumbs inside. With no small amount of exasperation, he told the Road Runner that yes, after nearly three years of streetcar service, such incidents still occur with regularity.
Just then, a woman carrying a steaming pie from Empire Pizza approached the car and responded nonchalantly to the driver’s entreaties to quickly move, seemingly oblivious to the stress and delay she had caused. With no apparent haste, she got in and drove away, with the streetcar fast on her tail.
It turns out that exact spot is at the epicenter of streetcar blockages, a problem officials say persists but has improved dramatically since July 2014, the first month of service.
Sun Link started closely tracking such incidents in January 2016, and the Road Runner obtained a year’s worth of blockage data, which contained some interesting details.
The most interesting has to do with where the above scene took place. Between January 2016 and January 2017, the range for which detailed data is available, there were 232 track blockages that added up to 1,758 minutes — or nearly 30 hours — of delay.
Of those, 76, or nearly one-third of all incidents, occurred near the Congress-Sixth intersection and added up to over 12 hours of delay. The two other major hotspots were along the 300 block of East Congress and Main Gate Square, near the University of Arizona campus.
So, what the heck is going on there? Steve Bethel, the streetcar’s general manager, had some insight.
First off, parallel parking on the left side of the street does not necessarily come naturally to many people. Additionally, the spot is often used by people looking to enjoy Tucson’s nightlife, and their attention to pesky details like parking inside white lines might be lacking.
To address the large number of obstructions, both spots are already designated for compact cars only. Additionally, Bethel said Park Tucson has “signs ordered” to make the spot east of the intersection a pickup and dropoff location in the evenings, when many of the blockages occur.
“You won’t be able to park there long term,” he added
Something else that jumped out from the data was that emergency vehicles were involved in about 44 percent of all blockages, or 101 incidents. That added up to 723 minutes of delay, for an average of 7.2 minutes per incident, well under the 10.2 minute average for personal vehicles.
The Road Runner spoke with Tucson Fire Department Assistant Chief Joe Gulotta to understand those numbers. The Tucson Police Department did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.
First off, Gulotta said that if an emergency vehicle is blocking the tracks, there’s a good reason. While there are certainly a handful of traffic stops involved in the blockages detailed in the data, there are numerous instances of police and fire personnel responding to drug overdoses and other medical emergencies, vehicle accidents, fights, and even a stabbing and shooting.
“If we have to block the train in order to provide public safety rescues, we will, but with the understanding that we’re not going to do it any longer than we possibly need to,” Gulotta said, adding that his firefighters look for places to park that allow for prompt responses without blocking the tracks.
But such spots are often wanting in downtown, where the two main east-west arterials have two lanes apiece and parking designed for personal vehicles, not massive firetrucks.
“There’s not a lot of space along Congress, Gulotta said.
Indeed, all but one of the blockages along the narrow 300 block of Congress, one of the three hotspots revealed by the data, involved emergency vehicles. The longest, a 65-minute delay, featured a “drunk individual fighting with police,” according to the data.
Despite the challenges of operating emergency vehicles downtown, Bethel said Sun Link and first responders “have come a long way.”
“It’s been a very cooperative relationship between (them) and our needs to keep moving,” he added.
Sun Link and city officials have a number of disincentives at their disposal to discourage obstructive parking. Sun Link supervisors, as well as TPD and Park Tucson employees, can write tickets for infractions, and there’s a tow company on standby for the particularly noncompliant. However, the incidents detailed in the data don’t often result in citations being written, and the tow truck is canceled before it arrives more often than not, though the data show that at least five — and possibly more — cars were towed, spelling hefty impound fees for violators.
Even though blockages remain an issue, Bethel said the rates seen in Tucson are not outliers when compared with streetcar systems elsewhere in the country. Furthermore, drivers are getting better at coexisting with the streetcar than they were when the service started.
“We’re in way better shape in Tucson than they are in most places,” he said, though he noted earlier that “I don’t think you’re ever going to see it going totally away.”
DOWN THE ROAD
Starting at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, South Sunset Boulevard south of West Ajo Way (Arizona 86) will be closed around the clock through early May. South Kinney Road and South Sheridan Avenue are the suggested alternate routes. On Friday, Tucson Estates Parkway will close for about five weeks, with Kinney providing a detour to West Bopp Road. The closures are intended to accommodate work to widen Arizona 86.
Starting Monday evening, crews will begin installing underground electrical lines at the East Grant Road-First/Euclid Avenue intersection. Work will proceed in night shifts, from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., through Friday. Shifting lane, turn and speed restrictions will be in place during the work, which is a part of the second phase of the Grant Road Improvement Project.