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A New Commentary Each Wednesday          July 23, 2014

The Streetcar Named "Nowhere."

    Beginning Friday, July 25, 2014, officials of cities with populations approximating that of Metropolitan Tucson, (One-million sun-baked souls), will begin to monitor a $196-million empirical experiment in downtown Tucson: a four-mile "modern" streetcar service named the "Sun Link."

    I can't think of a similar project in my lifetime that has been so perfectly designed to disappoint more people at a greater cost.

    I like the name. It sounds "touristy," especially to snow birds caught in wintery blasts, but that's about all I can find to recommend it. 

    It might come as some shock to learn that municipalities in the Southwestern United States are actually not required to have the word "sun" attached to as many public projects as possible.

    Actually, the entire satirical name given appropriately to the new street car line, erected at a hideous cost and in a time frame intended to weed out fragile business attempts downtown, is "The Streetcar to Nowhere." 

    It now meanders its incredibly costly railway generally westward from the University of Arizona beginning at the U. of A. Hospital, to the general western periphery of the partially rehabilitated old "downtown" area. The last time I looked down there, no real thing has sprouted along the Santa Cruz riverbank but a linear park. At one time, there was talk of an aquarium where nothing but desert lizards have existed for untold centuries.

    There has been talk about causing the river bed to flow a bit, once we discover where to get the water. Perhaps effluent from the affluent can be piped down to South Tucson.

    Though fares are expected to bring in $306,000 in the first year of operation, the current budget for the system will exceed $4-million in governmental subsidies annually. Spell that "taxes forever." The backers of the boondoggle must believe that a troop of bridge trolls will come and weave wool or cactus thorns into gold while we sleep.

    Keep in mind that operating expense does not have anything to do with the retirement of a $200-million investment in building the system.   

    For readers who reside outside of Pima County, Arizona Tucson began its life as a bubbling spring at the foot of a volcanic cone, lying a mile or so south and west of the present governmental center and original market and for a long time, Tucson's first shopping center. Think 10-yard line on the west end of a football field.

    The Presidio (fortress) of San Augustin was built in the northern reaches of New Spain in 1775 to keep the immigrants from Mexico safe. Today, this tradition is being carried on at the Greyhound Bus Depot by the Border Patrol.

    Businesses in Tucson began moving to large, outlying shopping centers just prior to 1960. Businesses continued to desert downtown for at least a half-century, with urban renewal projects and the need for offices for the expanding Federal, State, County and City constituencies building upon bulldozed mercantile properties of the past.

    Efforts to rejuvenate the downtown Tucson have met with disastrous folly. So much money was wasted in a profound series of mistakes called "Nuevo Pueblo," that the State Legislature had to forbid a further blood-letting in the last decade by cutting off funding. 

    Now, we find that the tourniquet is being loosened once again. 

     This week, a special ride was offered dignitaries and the press on one of eight new streetcars. Listening to some of the city leaders being interviewed on television, one would have thought that the tour was comparable to the first landing of men on the lunar surface. At least the timing for the long-delayed initial trip was appropriate, and it was "looney."

    The route in the future will include the University of Arizona Health Sciences center and hopefully will loop around a yet to be built shopping center to be located on the west side of Interstate 10. A quaint shopping area appropriately named El Mercado (The market) is meant to blossom there, perhaps offering serapes and moccasins made in Japan to tourists lured off of the super-highway by "The Thing," if the present owners of the tourist trap near Wilcox can be persuaded to part with it.

    Tracks now loop around a generous portion of the old downtown commercial area, enclosing some new student housing located on the eastern periphery of downtown, the Martin Luther King retirement center, as well as the AMTRAK train station, with plenty of bars, both large and small, enclosed therein. Partying and pub crawling is the order of each night, and a magnet for the homeless during the day. 

    The streetcar may be a boon for a few riders, especially students who go downtown for rousing street parties. The cost to a rider for a one day pass, is $4.00. For U of A students, that's a dollar a mile. Seems a bit expensive to me, but what the heck, what's college for anyway? 

    It's going to cost Tucson Taxpayers far more. We predict that the system will be overwhelmed on the first free-ride days this week, but be very costly to maintain in a very short time. For it's small size, the Sunlink streetcar line will lose more money faster than any other project ever envisioned for the Tucson area.

    Tucsonans, including an overwhelming number of students, are not gong to abandon their vehicles.

    There is no doubt that without subsidies, our SunTran busses would cease to exist. However, most of us agree that like hospitals, police and emergency services, some public transportation has to be supported by the whole public - to a degree. The street car is a whole 'nother extravagance.

    We can't see people traveling from all parts of the metropolitan area to pay for parking at either terminus at considerable cost, not to mention aggravation, in order to take a four mile ride that can be accomplished on a bicycle in a few minutes. It is decidedly not the San Francisco trolley.

    Speaking of bikes, already a score of riders have been seriously injured when their wheels were very easily caught in the narrow grooves on either side of the rails and they were sent flying over the handlebars, followed by a flurry of lawsuits.   

    During the test periods, more than one bike rider has complained of narrowly escaped being caught between the big new rail cars and other vehicles or boarding stations. Michael McKisson, a journalism major at the U. of A., said he and his bike came perilously close to being "squished." (or was it squashed?) by the street car, when it passed him.

    Parking along the already incredibly crowded curbs is going to be the greatest deterrent to most people. In order for the streetcar to navigate the narrow streets, one must now parallel park less than 18-inches from the curb, not always the easiest challenge for many drivers—or be heavily fined—and Tucson supports some of the highest parking fines in the free world.

    The perfect name for this perfect, man made disaster: a foible. 

-Phil Richardson, Observer and Storyteller

*"Water Dream," an Amazon eBook novel in which al-Qaeda operatives smuggle an atomic bomb into the USA. http://www.al-qaedajihad.com

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