Transportation Poses Growing Problems
for Tucson

By Joe Gold
Arizona Daily Star Staff Writer

For an increasing number of Tucsonans, just getting from one place to another is a major headache these days.

You see it in the eyes of exasperated drivers trying to get home at night. You see it in ever-lengthening lines of cars waiting for that red stoplight to change. You see it in traffic cones being used as makeshift direction markers for reversible lanes.

And you see it in government offices, where solving the problem is top-priority business, as well as in contracting firms, where improving streets and designing freeways are economic lifeblood.

The planners are traveling a transportation tightrope.

They must solve the problem at a time when Tucson is perhaps growing so rapidly that the proposed solutions cannot keep pace.

With county auto registration county up 11.5 per cent this year, the resulting increase in traffic is estimated to be roughly equal to the daily traffic volume on East Speedway between North Stone Avenue and North Kolb Road—about 294,500 car miles per day.

But they also face the prospect that the solutions might encourage more and faster growth, which in turn would require more solutions.

To anticipate where Tucson is growing, the Tucson Area Transportation Planning Agency (TATPA) started charting metropolitan development in 1960. Five years later, it reported that the city would continue to grow outward, especially toward the East Side. The predictions, it turns out, have been correct.

With those projections came a series of recommendations for more than 1,000 miles of new or improved streets. Proposals for a Catalina Freeway up Campbell Avenue and other changes in the traffic system have been dropped because of adverse reaction at public hearings in the past few years.

But five of the proposals make up the transportation plan, which has been adopted by the city, the county, South Tucson and the state transportation department. They are:

A Butterfield Expressway running from Kolb Road along the northern edge of Davis-Monthan AFB, south along the Southern Pacific tracks, then west to intersect with Interstate 10 between East Congress and 22nd Streets. The plan has drawn some sharp opposition, but Blanton & Co., an architecture and engineering firm, is making a route location study to be completed by next year. Target date for opening the Butterfield is now 1984.

-A Rillito-Pantano Parkway to run along a greenbelt adjacent to the waterways north and east of the city. The route would intersect with the Butterfield on the East Side. The two routes make up the circumferential plan for traffic that may be put to a city referendum on Sept. 18.
-Interstate 710, to begin at the Butterfield near Campbell and run south to Tucson International Airport.
-Widening and improvement of arterial streets, which was approved Feb. 6 in the city bond election.
-Beefing up the bus system, as the city did, purchasing Tucson Transit Co. in 1969 and initiating expanded service in July and September of last year.

That the proposed changes would speed traffic through the city has never really been challenged. Instead, critics of the plan said it was based on a projection of Tucson sprawling over ever greater expanses of desert, which they said it was not in the interest of the people. They complained that the proposal was oriented too much toward the automobile and not nearly enough toward more efficient mass transit.

The critics said that by TATPA's planning for a certain version of Tucson's future, the agency might help bring that vision to reality—a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For instance, building a Butterfield to southeast Tucson will shorten the 30-to 45-minute drive from downtown to Pantano Road to about 10 minutes. Providing such easy access, the critics complained, only encourages more people to move even farther out.

Don Bufkin, director of TATPA, admits the criticism is valid, saying that the routing of transit facilities can encourage growth in some areas and discourage it in others.

But the growth projected by his agency several years ago has already materialized, he contends, so the Butterfield is needed just to serve the people in the hundreds of homes already there.

Bufkin says the Rincon Area Plan—which is designed to limit the population east of Harrison Road—will prevent the overflow of growth to the southeast that the Butterfield otherwise might stimulate. Critics contend, however, that the Butterfield would add impetus to eastward growth to the point that officials would throw out the Rincon Area Plan in favor of more eastside housing.

The city's pairing of one-way streets, adding reversible lanes and widening major arterials are only temporary solutions with congestion mounting so rapidly.

A more permanent answer may lie with the five-man Auto-Free Zone Task Force. The rough outline of the group's proposal includes:

Establishing parking lots on the fringe of downtown and banning cars from the central business district

Building an east-west spine along 5th and 6th Streets for a "personal rapid transit" line, which could be served by express busses until the PRT system is built.

Forming a transit loop with parallel bicycle paths from downtown to the University of Arizona campus, the Speedway-El Rancho Shopping Center, El Con Shopping Center, Randolph Park and back to downtown.

The plan—to be submitted in full to the city manager’s office in May or early June—is designed to attract federal tax money through the Urban Mass Transportation Administration. Members of the task force express confidence in the plan and Tucson’s ability to meet the requirements.

The first is one of cost. Although building a PRT can run as high as $12 million per mile compared to the $10 million per mile to build a freeway, the PRT cost will include the vehicles and thus may save Tucson families from buying a second (or third) car. The added expense from tax money will save millions for Tucsonans in the personal cost of the new car they might no longer need to purchase.

And Nizlek says mass transit "creates a sense of community harmony." Neighbors and co-workers can sit and talk, Nizlek says, instead of cursing each other as they cut each other off from traffic lanes.

Although Nizlek does not mention it, another factor may be that mass transit in part reflects changing social values. For while TATPA's urban growth projections have been consistently accurate, the planning agency could not forecast the less predictable developments of social change.

Since the plan was unveiled in 1965, issues of urban sprawl, automotive pollution and snarled traffic have climbed to the top of the list of public priorities, as the first surveys of the comprehensive planning process verified last year.

Changing values collided with auto-oriented transportation plans and produced a backlash against freeways.

"There's an emotional response to freeways—they're disruptive, they divide neighborhoods, they cause relocation of people," Bufkin says. But when the critics reject freeways on an emotional basis, he adds, "they at the same time deny our dependence on the automobile."

That dependence is documented by TATPA statistics. In 1948, when Tucson was a city of 120,000, bus transportation accounted for 11.76 per cent of travel within the urban area. As population and affluence grew, more people were able to afford more cars until only .62 of one per cent of intra-city travel was on the bus.

The city's purchase of Tucson Transit Co. in 1961 and subsequent service improvements last year resulted in passengers doubling from the 1968 figure to slightly more man one per cent as of December. The rest is still via cars and trucks.

Is there a contradiction between public attitudes and behavior? Bufkin says there is.

"People will say the automobile is an abomination and we should ban it. Usually what he means is that the automobile for my neighbor and he shouldn't use it, but for me, it's a necessity."

The reason? Cars are still the most convenient form of transportation. They are ready where and when needed and make only those stops the user desires.

The contradiction, according to Bufkin, goes beyond transportation to the whole issue of land use: "The people can’t make up their minds whether we want urban sprawl or we don’t. Urban sprawl is broadly cursed in the community, yet it’s bought in the marketplace."

Or, he says, should the public decide to encourage satellite cities, then roads or tram systems–or both–could tie those satellites to the urban core which, if stabilized by then might be conducive to an internal system of mass transit.

If the decision is to stop growth on the edges of the city and concentrate the inevitable population in the present area, the higher density could more easily support public transportation to prevent the streets from becoming chaotic, Bufkin says.

Before any more specific decisions can be made, the planners must await the public verdict, voiced through the comprehensive planning process and the Sept. 18 referendum.

The fate of the Butterfield, the Rillito-Pantano and Interstate 710 will also hang in the balance.

But gaining a consensus may be more difficult than merely asking the right questions and forming plans based on the answers.

The community, Bufkin says, is hearing from opposite ends of the opinion spectrum—those who say stop building roads and force people to use mass transit, and the other who say mobile access to all activity is the goal therefore, freeways and more streets are needed.

Still, Bufkin says, the longer the community delays a decision, the worse the situation will grow. The 1965 growth projections were based on market values, which he says are not likely to make any sudden shift without government pressure in the form of rezoning.

"Even if we revolutionize the zoning ordinances, we would have (financial) commitments which would carry us at least five years. If we continue to wring our hands, the forecast will come true, and that's what we have to deal with."

Dr. Robert C. Cauthorn, a UA economics professor, considers the situation even more dangerous.

Present laws, financial institutions, methods of building for more cars and the relative impotence of planning and zoning could, in Cauthorn's view, lead Tucson to urban disaster within 10 years.

"One way to break the momentum is to let it break you. In 10 years, we won't have a city that's worth caring about. By that time, we'll be spending half our time just trying to restore the city to the way it is today," he predicts.

"The deficit in the community is in problem seeing, not problem solving," Cauthorn says in criticism of professional planners. The planners look only at the aspects of traffic flow along the street rather than such matters as pedestrian crossings, building setbacks and cross-traffic, he says.

The Comprehensive Planning Process is meant to include the social and aesthetic factors in proposed solutions.

If through that process a satisfactory growth plan can be adopted, transportation planning will be counted on to direct growth into the desired areas by providing access to those areas.


This front-page article from the Sunday Arizona Daily Star was the first installment of a 13-part weekly series, The Shrinking Desert, a broad overview of the decades-long problem of rapid urban growth. The series won first place in Arizona Press Club series writing competition and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism.

To the Top