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Watching the Sun Link rise

Car 105 at Stop 2 in the Mercado district – a core area for redevelopment for the city.

Tucson’s Sun Link streetcar system opened on 25 July 2014 – becoming the first new completely US-built streetcar system since before World War Two.

Construction of the 6.25km (3.9-mile) Sun Link line began in 2011, with a completed project cost of USD196.5m.

Tucson is the second-largest city in the State of Arizona, USA, around 115km (70 miles) south-east of the state capital Phoenix and some 100km (60 miles) north of the Mexican border. With rich copper deposits that traditionally formed a key sector of the region’s economy, in recent years the city has reinvented itself as an important hub for manufacturing and high-tech industries.

It has a relatively low density for its 600 000 population; the city has a small core and is part of a larger regional centre with a population of around one million.

Streetcar revival

Electric streetcars first came to Tucson in 1906, replacing a 25-year old horse-drawn system. However with growing motorbus competition the electric system closed in 1930.

The city’s streetcar revival began with the establishment of the Old Pueblo Trolley heritage line in 1993. The heritage line ran from the university entrance at Main Gate Square along University Boulevard to 4th Avenue where it initially turned south along that road to a terminus at 8th Street where the car barn was located. It was later extended along 4th Avenue to enter the downtown area by means of a bridge under the main freight railroad line and circled the city centre.

The system used an ex-Brussels car from 1936 and a Japanese vehicle purchased from the undertaking in Osaka in 1992. There are four other non-operational streetcars – Toronto PCC 4608, Huntington Standard cars 733 and 860 dating from 1913 and ex-Lisbon Brill car 524, built in Philadelphia in 1924.

The success of the heritage line led the city fathers to start planning a modern streetcar route in 2004. By 2006 they had concluded that a modern streetcar was the best way to improve public transport on the corridor between the university and Downtown Tucson via the 4th Avenue business area. The existing tramway would be extended at both ends and modern streetcars would run alongside the heritage cars.

Heritage operation was suspended in 2011 to permit construction of the modern line, although it is expected to return by the end of 2014.

The new line

Tucson has an extreme desert climate with temperatures in excess of 42°C (105°F) in the summer; even in the depths of winter average temperatures rarely drop below freezing.

The Sun Link streetcars were procured directly by the City of Tucson, which ordered eight Type 200 vehicles from United Streetcar based in Clackamas, Oregon. These are similar to some already operating in Portland, Oregon and Washington DC, but with beefed-up HVAC, and are based on the original design from Skoda of the Czech Republic. These cars also have Siemens propulsion systems and Trapeze communication systems.

The three-section, bi-directional low-floor cars are 20m long, 2.46m wide and 3.55m high, and operate from 750V dc overhead current collection. Each can carry 148 passengers, and has a maximum operating speed of 45mph (72km/h).

The line’s infrastructure cost approximately USD56m and was built by Old Pueblo Trackworks, a joint venture of local and national construction companies.

Sun Link is operated and maintained on behalf of the City of Tucson by Sun Link RDMT, part of an RATP Dev McDonald Transit joint venture that was awarded a three-year contract in December 2012. Options to the contract can take this up to eight years.

Integration with Tucson-owned Sun Tran means Sun Link is linked with the local bus service; Sun Tran operates 240 buses and 1000 minibuses.

Construction and future plans

TAUT met Sun Link RDMT General Manager Steve Bethel and City Transportation Administrator Shellie Ginn, who explained that utility relocation had been one of the major challenges in construction of the new line, with utility relocation more time-consuming than actual infrastructure construction.

The existing heritage tramway has been extended at the eastern end to run through the university via Park Avenue and 2nd Street before turning north along Warren Avenue. The otherwise double-track route becomes single track and bi-directional through an underpass below a university road link.

The route then turns east along Helen Street before running into a single-track terminus just short of the junction with Martin Avenue. At the western end the line was extended through the city centre using the east-west one-way system before crossing the Interstate 10 freeway on the specially-constructed Luis G. Gutierrez Bridge. This was the biggest infrastructure project. In addition to carrying streetcars, the bridge also has dedicated cycling and pedestrian lanes, as well as dealing with most vehicle traffic. From the bridge the route enters the clockwise terminal loop in the developing Mercado area.

The stations are simple structures, providing limited protection from the heat but with a waiting area, ticket machine and timetable information.

Passenger targets for the new line were anticipated at 3600 per day, although early figures suggest that actual numbers are averaging almost 4000 per day in the opening weeks of paid ridership.

In terms of future expansion, Bethel explained that options are being considered but as yet nothing has been specified.

 For the full version of this feature, please see Tramways & Urban Transit – November 2014 issue (923).