Is El Paso's streetcar on the right track?
EL PASO, Texas (KFOX14) —
The El Paso streetcar is on its way, and the signs are everywhere, from detours and closures to the orange construction barrels.
Some businesses along the route say they're suffering and others have closed. That raises the question: Will the streetcar be worth the trouble?
KFOX14 News at Nine’s Genevieve Curtis hit the road to find out.
Rolling through the streets of Tucson, Arizona, a streetcar clatters along its now-familiar route.
The streetcar, which is also called Sun Link, hauls passengers in front of Trudy Mill’s bookstore, Antigone Books, on Fourth Avenue.
It’s connecting her to new customers.
“To see (families) come in with their kids for, like, a day out because the kids want to ride the streetcar, I think its so cool,” said Mills.
The cars have been running through five districts in Tucson for almost three years and they connect downtown Tucson with the University of Arizona.
“Downtown, before the streetcar, was a place very few people went,” said Richard Fifer, the owner of Gentle Ben’s Brewing on the University of Arizona campus.
A decade ago, the city's development was at a standstill. As El Paso is doing now, Tucson was trying to revitalize its downtown.
“It was essentially a ghost town,” said Todd Hanley, of Hotel Congress in downtown Tucson.
Tucson counted on the streetcar to be the catalyst for its revival.
The momentum came in 2010, when Tucson received a federal grant for the streetcar.
Shellie Ginn, with the city Transportation Department, oversaw the project.
“When you build a rail system, you can’t move it,” she said.
That permanent route put a course of development in motion.
“That is new. That is new. That’s completely getting redeveloped,” said Britton Dornquast, with the Main Street Business Assistance Program.
Dornquast describes the evolution as rapid.
“It was almost instantaneous. It was incredible how fast things changed, because it’s real. These are here forever,” said Dornquast.
We went block by block down Congress Street, downtown Tucson’s main artery.
“None of this was here,” said Dornquast.
There are new restaurants, shops, bars, hotels, condos and apartments.
“It just keeps going, chunk by chunk by chunk,” said Dornquast.
Then there’s the city’s hip new Mercado District, which before the streetcar, was a real dump.
“This was literally a landfill,” said Dornquast.
Tucson also knows the growing pains of progress, even for established businesses such as Gentle Ben’s.
“Our revenues dropped significantly,” said Fifer.
The same was true at Hotel Congress, a destination in Tucson since 1919.
“It was tough,” said Hanley.
“I know that it’s very painful. The good news is that the benefits very much outweigh the pain of construction,” said Ginn.
Time and time again, we heard how quiet, torn-up streets were transformed into bustling neighborhoods.
As the streetcar carries commuters, it’s also sending profits in a positive direction.
The City of Tucson Transportation Department said the streetcar generated nearly $2 billion in economic development in the past two years.
“The growth just continues,” said Ginn.
Businesses are cashing in.
“We've seen nothing but increased revenue because of it,” said Fifer.
“Substantial. Enough for me to know that, boy, it hit,” said Hanley.
“The first year (the streetcar) was open, our business was up 8 percent. It’s been up every year since it opened,” said Mills, of Antigone Books.
“It’s pretty much the only way to get to school,” said Erika Sadighi, a passenger aboard the streetcar.
As it snakes its way through the city, riders say the streetcar eliminates the hassles of traffic and parking.
“During game days, this thing is filled to the brim,” said Nicolas Chappelle.
Sadighi and Chappelle are among Sun Link's 4,000 daily riders.
“Almost every day,” said Chappelle.
Sun Link’s target riders are students and downtown professionals.
The cars carry just shy of a million passengers a year, according to Steve Bethel, Sun Link’s general manager.
Tucson’s sleek streetcars are modern, different in style from El Paso’s vintage cars, which are currently being retrofitted in Pennsylvania.
El Paso’s historic trolleys are on track to return in 2018.
If we can ride out the construction, those who have seen where a streetcar can take a city say El Paso’s headed in the right direction.
“Good luck to El Paso,” said Mills.
Tucson's streetcar operates on a $4 million annual budget.
Bethel said about a third of that comes from fares and the rest comes out of the city's general fund.
The city of El Paso said its projected budget is $2.5 million.
El Paso expects the fares will contribute 15-20 percent to the overall budget.
The rest of the funding could come from sales tax, grant funding or other sources the city is still considering.
The city said, however, money cannot come from the city’s General Fund because Sun Metro will operate the streetcar.