With the Tucson Modern Streetcar scheduled to open July 25, vehicle testing is raising concerns about how it will fit in with other modes of transportation.
A Feb. 18 incident involving an illegally parked car on Congress Street exacerbated these apprehensions, as the streetcar couldn’t get by and ended up blocking the left lane, forcing all traffic into one lane downtown.
The law requires vehicles to be parked no more than 18 inches from the curb, according to ParkWise program administrator Donovan Durband. The truck that held up the streetcar was 26 inches away from the curb, he said. ParkWise is the city’s parking management and enforcement arm.
In February, bicyclist Michael McKisson, a University of Arizona journalism instructor and founder and publisher of TucsonVelo.com, a news website for the Tucson cycling community, posted a video on his site from his helmet cam of a streetcar passing perilously close to him on Fourth Avenue.
McKisson said he doesn’t think there’s room for the streetcar, parked cars and bicyclists on some parts of the streetcar route. Something’s got to give, he said, before it’s the bones of biker.
Durband said incidents like these are “why we do the testing” on the streetcar. He said they help predict behaviors of people who will still be getting used to the streetcar.
ParkWise will look into implementing a quick towing policy, leaving vehicles that are in the way of the streetcar subject to citation and towing, Durband said. Clear and stern signage would be placed in the areas susceptible to this problem, he said.
Durband also said that parking spaces along the route will be converted to metered parking in late spring in order to measure the parking tendencies of people along the route.
However, businesses along Fourth Avenue are concerned about the implementation of meters, according to Kurt Tallis, marketing event director for the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association.
“Parking is precious down here,” Tallis said. “Any deviation from any parking that we currently have always hurts.”
Tallis said small businesses are concerned that they don’t know where employees will park if there is a lack of free parking. This could affect merchants, who “are still trying to get over the construction (of the streetcar),” he said.
As a result, there are mixed sentiments over the completion of the streetcar but Tallis is confident that the businesses along the route will get through it.
“They’ve been through so much,” he said. “It’s hard to see through the clouds when they haven’t quite parted yet.”
Tallis said streetcar construction also affected last weekend’s Fourth Avenue Spring Street Fair. He said that while they were able to work with the city to determine how to deal with the lack of space, the budget was reduced by $30,000 and there were 16-20 fewer vendors.
Tallis said that while “change is hard for everybody,” they worked together on finding a plan to make up for that lost money. Until then, the only thing he said he can do is keep everyone’s hopes high.
While the construction of parking garages along the route has been discussed, Durband said the city will wait until the streetcar opens before determining whether additional parking is necessary.
Durband estimates that construction cut down roughly 100 spaces along the route, but there are still nearly 11,000 public parking spaces within walking distance of the streetcar.
Until then, Durband said the city will get creative in ways to market the streetcar. In order to encourage streetcar riders to use existing public parking, the city has discussed offering a bundled price that will include both the costs of parking and streetcar fare, he said. They also have looked into the possibility of leasing private lots in the meantime.
Fares for the streetcar have not yet been set, but should be in line with Sun Tran bus fares, Durband said.
“Even very positive improvements cause adjustments that in the short run create problems,” Durband said.
Downtown Tucson Partnership CEO Michael Keith said businesses downtown also are anticipating the opening of the streetcar, as the estimated 3,600 passengers on the streetcar daily could help them solidify their businesses.
“Merchants along the streetcar line are thrilled that this four-mile corridor will start bringing customers to their door,” he said.
While some people are afraid of change, Keith said, “Everyone is going to have to learn what the new reality is and how to deal with it.”
One of the ways to drive business downtown is to promote bicycling, which Keith said are some of the biggest economic drivers for urban centers. Bicyclists tend to stay longer and spend more money per capita when they visit downtowns, he said. Fourteen bike parking spaces can fit into a single car parking space, he said.
Keith recently went on a bike ride of the route with Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik to review the safety of the route for bicyclists.
Kozachik said he discovered several “pinch points,” or areas of safety concern along the route. The likely option to fix these problems is to eliminate one or two on-street parking spaces where the streetcar is vulnerable, he said.
“We simply need to go through and look at where all the pinch points are and then make an appropriate decision from an operation standpoint,” Kozachik said.
Kozachik stressed the importance of accounting for problems and eliminating concerns before the streetcar opens.
“The goal is to make it safe and to make sure that we’re not creating operations issues so that we wind up with a problem later on.”
But McKisson said the current system is dangerous for bicyclists, as the combination of the streetcar and parked cars allows little room for mistakes.
McKisson said the ideal situation is to remove parking along the narrow parts of the streetcar route and replace it with parking garages, McKisson said.
“If they truly want to make it safe for all people to use the road, they need to take out the parking,” he said.
McKisson, who describes himself as a “confident and capable cyclist,” said the streetcar passing him unnerved him. What’s more, it passed him despite not having the three feet required by law to pass, he said.
“If a streetcar coming up from behind and tries to pass you, you basically are riding in a place that’s not safe,” McKisson said.
As a result, he said bicyclists are forced to ride with little margin for error. The narrow areas make it harder for bicyclists to ride out of the “door zone,” or five feet to the left of a parked car, he said.
“Even if there is not a streetcar coming, it’s still a dangerous situation because it’s so narrow,” McKisson said.
McKisson said a short-term fix to the problem is for streetcar drivers to train drivers to follow bicyclists and only pass when they have the opportunity with three feet. However, he still thinks cyclists would be getting the “short shrift” in the current model.
“When the rubber hits the road, the cyclists are the ones who are going to be seriously injured,” he said.
However, the streetcars are not subject to the three-foot rule, according to City Attorney Mike Rankin. The Arizona statute only applies to motor vehicles and streetcars are not motor vehicles, he said.
Regardless, Rankin said, “Safety is at the top our concerns,” and despite the rule not applying, “Our training stresses that the streetcar will not pass cyclists unless there is sufficient space to do so safely.”
Rankin said the city has had only one claim in connection with the streetcar involving a woman falling near the streetcar tracks, but nothing with the streetcar itself. Appropriate signage along the tracks is already up for bicyclists and the city assembled a safety team to combat these issues, he said.
Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said he believes that the current system is safe, but problems lie in its execution. The responsibility to educate pedestrians and bicyclists about potential dangers with the streetcar lies with the city, he said.
While he said he’s focused on getting the system up and running, adjustments to the current parking system are something he anticipates.
Rothschild said concern always comes with change and the best thing the community can do is be patient as the city works out the kinks.
“My focus is on getting the existing system up and running and running well,” he said.
Rothschild said that the streetcar has brought $1.1 billion in public and private investment before the first ticket has been sold. Some commercial developers have expressed interest in building in Tucson for the first time in 40 years, he said.
“It has created a revitalization and a renaissance along the route and hopefully that synergy will extend to other parts of the city.”
Tucson Sun Link co-manager Andy Quigley said that while it has been discussed, there are currently no plans to change the current parking system.
“We’re not really talking about eliminating parking,” Quigley said. “That’s not something that’s in the mix right now.”
Quigley said the current situation is safe for bikers, but a potential fix would be to convert parking spaces to back-in parking on narrower streets. In the meantime, he said that it will take education for bikers, cars, pedestrians and the streetcar to learn to coexist together.
“We believe the system is designed to facilitate multi-modal transportation,” Quigley said.
Regardless, he doesn’t think parking is a deal breaker for the success of the streetcar, as there is plenty of parking downtown that needs to be used.
“I think we’d rather see economic development than development of a parking garage,” Quigley said.
The city has already seen economic development along the rail as a number of transit-oriented apartments have opened near the route, Quigley said. He also said that during construction, the city’s infrastructure along the route was updated as well, including new sewer lines, water lines, gas lines and fiber optics cables, which should last 75 years. Property values along the route have gone up as well, Quigley said.
Testing on the streetcar is done daily to ensure the city is prepared to deal with potential issues. Sun Link has received five of eight vehicles, with the last one expected to arrive in May, Quigley said. None of them have been accepted by the city yet, but Quigley said he’s optimistic they will be ready in time for the July opening.
Austin Counts, owner of 4th Avenue Delicatessen, 425 N. Fourth Ave., said one of the reasons he opened his store in August was because it was in front of one of the streetcar stops.
Counts said that he’s yet to see an increase in streetcar-related business aside from Sun Link employees and people curious about the progress of construction. However, he said he believes that business will increase once the streetcar opens.
“I’m very hopeful that it’s going to bring a lot more business back to the area once it officially starts running,” he said.
While Counts expects there to be problems initially, he believes that the streetcar will be a welcomed addition to downtown and Fourth Avenue. He said that he thinks that the streetcar will initially attract people out of curiosity, but once they realize its convenience, they will become frequent riders.
“After they do their trial and error, I think that it’s going to be a good thing for the area,” Counts said.