The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:
As we turn the corner on the COVID-19 pandemic, planning for our transportation future will play a critical role in the strength of our recovery. Our ability to leverage public infrastructure investment to foster economic growth will be a key component of a successful rebound.
Prior to the beginning of the pandemic, the U.S. already lagged behind developed countries when it comes to the quality of our infrastructure, ranking 13th despite having the world’s largest economy. Now is the time to think boldly to rebuild America’s infrastructure, catch up to the rest of the world, and kickstart our economy.
In Tucson, we are working diligently to maintain existing infrastructure while supporting multimodal transportation options that serve everyone, regardless of whether you drive, use public transit, walk, bike or skate.
Under my proposal and beginning this year, the city will double the amount of funds we are investing in repairing local neighborhood streets.
My colleagues on the City Council and I are also working to make public transit more accessible, having suspended fares at the start of the pandemic and keeping them suspended until the end of this year.
In the coming months, we will be exploring long-term options to become one of the only major U.S. cities with free public transit. Finally, we are nearing completion of our city’s mobility masterplan, Move Tucson.
Make no mistake: The level of need is enormous and local resources will only go so far. At the federal level, we have a once-in-a-generation infrastructure package in the form of President Biden’s American Jobs Plan (AJP).
The AJP would be transformative for Tucson and communities across the country, rebuilding our nation’s transportation networks, creating millions of good-paying, union and green jobs, prioritizing historically under-invested communities, and re-defining “infrastructure” to encompass basic necessities such as high-speed internet and affordable housing.
Public infrastructure investment is a catalyst for private investment and economic growth. The streetcar is a perfect example of this, spurring over $1 billion in private investments in our urban core.
Through the American Jobs Plan, we have the possibility of funding a state-of-the-art, regional Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line, running 15 miles from the Tohono Tadai Transit Center near Tucson Mall all the way south to the Tucson International Airport.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, BRT typically consists of dedicated bus lanes, smart signalization, prioritization at intersections, off-board fare collection, and other design elements that expedite travel time, and give the “feel” of riding a streetcar. The route would run down key north-south corridors, including Oracle Road and South Sixth Avenue, supplementing current transit-oriented development planning efforts already underway.
The plan calls for the repair of thousands of bridges nationwide. I am advocating for the building of the Drexel Bridge. The Drexel Bridge project would support enhanced economic vitality, divert traffic from some of the most highly congested areas in our city, and reconnect communities long separated by the Santa Cruz River and Interstate 19 with vehicle, biking and walking access.
Thanks to the efforts of U.S. Reps. Raúl Grijalva, Ann Kirkpatrick and Greg Stanton, seed funding for both of these major projects were included in the $547 million INVEST in America Act surface transportation bill that was just approved by a committee in the U.S. House of Representatives a few days ago.
In addition, this legislation includes funding for “Complete Streets” projects for Fifth/Sixth Street from downtown to Wilmot Road, and South Campbell Avenue between Benson Highway and Valencia Road. These projects would provide continuous and fully accessible sidewalks, improve landscaping, reconstruct pavement and enhance bicycle lanes.
As the third-fastest-warming city in the U.S., it is imperative that any infrastructure plan takes significant steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and protects our precious water resources. Just a few days ago, Tucson Water announced that it would be shutting down one of our water treatment facilities due to increasing levels of a group of toxic chemicals known as PFAS.
Importantly, the AJP includes $10 billion to monitor and remediate PFAS contamination in communities throughout the country. Additionally, the plan includes grants and incentives to install 500,000 electric vehicle (EV) charging stations nationwide.
Locally, we are about to operationalize our first five electric buses, thanks to a federal grant and strong public-private partnership with Tucson Electric Power, which is providing the charging infrastructure. The AJP targets 40 percent of the benefits of climate and clean infrastructure investments to disadvantaged communities.
The reality is that none of these projects will happen without major federal investment from the American Jobs Plan. If we go too small, we run the risk of falling even further behind other developed countries.
The American Jobs Plan will allow Tucson and communities throughout America to make critical investments that will increase mobility, improve safety and address the climate crisis, while supporting our city’s goal of shifting how we invest in transportation to create a thriving, inclusive and sustainable city for all.
Regina Romero was elected as mayor of Tucson in November 2019 and served on the Tucson City Council from 2007-2019.