Streetcar Project Gets in Gear

Posted on March 29, 2011 by Janna Starcic, Executive Editor

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The streetcar will operate in mixed traffic.
The streetcar will operate in mixed traffic.
A little more than a year ago, the FTA awarded Arizona's Tucson Modern Streetcar project a $63 million TIGER Grant — this signaled a major turning point for the project. Currently, the project is nearing completion of final design, with utility relocation under way and construction projected to begin in mid-to-late 2011.


The $196 million streetcar project is part of the $2.1 billion Regional Transportation Plan, approved by Pima County voters in May 2006. The project is funded by the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) as well as federal and other regional funds. The City of Tucson and the RTA are co-managing the project.

"The Tucson Modern Streetcar project was able to secure local funding early in the project as part of the RTA vote in May 2006," says Project Manager Shellie Ginn. "However, the project also required federal funding and, in order to secure this funding, the project had to navigate through several federal programs."

The project initially started as a Small Starts project, she adds, then became a New Starts "Exempt" project but, ultimately the majority of the federal share was funded through the $63 million TIGER grant award (See sidebar for funding breakdown).

"Fixed-guideway projects such as the Tucson Modern Streetcar are inherently complex. Funding was a major challenge, as most fixed-guideway rail projects require some level of federal funding," Ginn says when asked what hurdles were faced by this project.  

The FTA issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the streetcar project at the end of January 2010, giving the green light to begin construction and access $63 million in federal grant money.


Tucson's 3.9-mile streetcar route connects major activity centers: The University of Arizona, Arizona Health Sciences Center, Main Gate Square, 4th Avenue Business District, Congress Shopping and Entertainment District, Downtown Tucson and the Downtown redevelopment area west of I-10, including the Mercado District.

The vehicles will stop at 17 points along the route, with service frequency running from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. daily. The streetcar is expected to reach a stop every 10 minutes during the day and every 20 minutes during the evening.


United Streetcar, a subsidiary of Oregon Iron Works Inc., which is manufacturing the first Buy America-compliant streetcar in the U.S. since 1952, is building the streetcars for the project. The company is currently fabricating six streetcars for the City of Portland's East Side Loop Extension and seven streetcars for the City of Tucson's streetcar project. Tucson's modern streetcar vehicles will be part of the first order of vehicles manufactured in the U.S. in nearly 60 years.

The United Streetcar 200 is the model being manufactured for this project. This particular version is specifically built for cities with hot climates, by increasing cooling capacity, improving air distribution and installing a more efficient HVAC system, according to the company's website.

"This fixed-guideway electric rail system will have seven, all-electric ADA-compliant vehicles in operation, sharing a travel lane with other vehicles and will be compatible with street parking," Ginn says.

The streetcars also will accommodate bicycles and have easy roll-on access for wheelchairs and strollers. Stop platforms will be designed so that they can be used by buses as well as streetcars, where possible.

With regard to the fare collection system, Ginn says, "the goal is to have a seamless, integrated fare system with our current public regional bus system, Sun Tran. Ultimately, the public transit system will have one easy-to-use, card swipe fare system."

Opening year ridership for the Modern Street is forecast at 3,600 average daily boardings.

Once operational, the streetcar service will operate in mixed traffic and, as such, will function the same as any other vehicle on the roadway, according to Ginn. "New traffic signals will be added at some intersections to facilitate traffic control between all modes, and detailed signage and pavement markings will be added," she says. "The Tucson Modern Streetcar project has been designed to be as context sensitive as possible, and detailed consideration has been given to the interaction with other modes, including pedestrians, bicyclists and vehicles."

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