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Tucson’s Light Rail Plan Slated for November Vote

Fri October 31, 2003 - West Edition

TUCSON, AZ (AP) With two interstates that have only limited value for commuters and few parkways, this is a place where getting around can mean spending a lot of time waiting at lights and staring at the back of someone else’s car.

City buses aren’t necessarily a better option now. Insurance agent Tim Dutton says getting to work by bus can take him up to two hours.

That’s where a Nov. 4 ballot initiative that would create a 13-mi. light rail system is supposed to come in.

Proponents believe light rail is the only way to begin to entice commuters from their cars, SUVs and trucks on congested streets. With few exceptions to arterial streets as the main thoroughfares, traffic often is clogged from early morning through the evening rush hour.

Added left-turn lanes, bus pullouts and road-widening projects have been considered little more than Band-Aids, and the idea of a crosstown expressway has been a dead issue for close to two decades.

Light rail, however, is visionary and practical, say backers, who also stress that rail is just part of the total package going before voters.

Opponents contend the package will be too burdensome for city residents, lacks a regional scope and will be too costly for the return.

“If you look at how the money is to be spent, a full 68 percent of the money will go to only 2.5 percent of the citizens” — those who use public transportation, said John Dougherty, governmental affairs director for the Tucson Chamber of Commerce.

The plan will require approval of two propositions to take effect.

One would raise the city’s sale tax to 2.3 percent from 2 percent and increase a construction sales tax to 6 percent from 2 percent. Estimates say the increases would raise $1 billion over 20 years.

The other proposition outlines how the money would be spent. Besides rail, money would go toward street maintenance, improving bus service, a 47-mi. express-bus feeder network tying into light-rail stations, new sidewalks, bikeways and added police traffic patrols.

The light rail system seems to appeal to people who already use the city’s bus service.

“One, the transportation is better. Two, it’s more economical,” said Ronald Drumbore, a maintenance worker.

Dutton said it would make his life easier. “A rail system or whatever would be beneficial,” he said.

Stephen Farley, a spokesman for Citizens for a Sensible Transportation Solution, which brought the plan to the ballot, said varied modes of transportation are needed in this city of some 503,000 people, which has been growing at a rate of 3 percent a year.

“I don’t think any reasonable person could imagine that we could continue to grow at that pace without offering any reasonable operations besides the car,” Farley said.

But Dougherty points out that few people avail themselves of either Sun Tran, the city’s regular bus service, or Van Tran, vehicles operated for the benefit of disabled people. He also said voters who defeated another transportation initiative last year were looking for “an all-encompassing regional plan and not just a piecemeal approach.”

Sun Tran’s ridership was listed at more than 15 million last year, according to city figures.

Mayor Bob Walkup, a Republican who is in a tight re-election battle, opposes the light rail effort because it’s not regional in scope. “This is not equitable, it’s very focused,” he said.

Walkup’s Democratic opponent, former Mayor Tom Volgy, endorses the light rail plan as a proactive approach to helping solve the city’s transportation problems.

“Any other city that’s built a regional (light-rail) system has built in the center first,” Farley added, noting other municipalities hooked up to it to build a regional system.

Currently, 19 U.S. cities operate light rail systems and 23 U.S. cities have vintage trolleys — including Tucson.

Another 13 cities, including Phoenix, are in some stage of developing light rail, while eight more are adding to currently operating systems, including Salt Lake City, San Jose, Sacramento and Dallas.

Including Tucson, 35 more cities are exploring light rail.

Arizona’s eastern neighbor is among those considering light rail. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he wants to move ahead with a possible Albuquerque-Santa Fe commuter rail system without additional studies of the decades-old proposal.