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The There There

On Friday, July 25, 2014, Tucsonans gathered in the streets. The University of Arizona marching band trumpeted and drummed. Wilma Wildcat danced. Volunteers handed out free water bottles. Politicians spoke of Tucson’s bright future. Hundreds of people gathered and sweated under white canopy tents. The amateur paparazzi thronged, cameras clicking. Just after 9 a.m., as the shining blue Sun Link Modern Streetcar glided slowly through the packed intersection at Fifth and Congress, a cheer erupted across the block.

By sunset, the sidewalks were full of people. No one seemed to be going anywhere in particular—there was a two-hour wait for a table at the recently opened Pizzeria Bianco. The bar at Proper Restaurant was stacked three deep. A queue hovered outside Diablo Burger. So Tucsonans waited in line and gawked at each other, everyone eager for a chance, simply and amazingly, to ride.

By the time the streetcar rolled into downtown, it was two and half years behind schedule. Construction had closed Fourth Avenue and Congress Street for almost a year. Several local businesses had also closed, cash-strapped during construction. Dozens of cyclists had already been snared in its tracks. Ten years in the making, the streetcar had cost a total of $198.8 million.

But perhaps what was so remarkable—so transformative—about the streetcar was its cost. “The prospect of the streetcar changed the thinking of developers and businesses,” says Park Tucson administrator Donovan Durband. “They saw the price tag as a serious commitment.” Funded through a combination of federal and local money, “the idea was that the city was surely going to keep investing in the area to support that initial investment,” he says. Money follows money, and as the streetcar route was negotiated starting in 2006, developers took note. By 2016, the Downtown Tucson Partnership estimated that there has been more than $1.2 billion invested in real estate and infrastructure along the 3.9-mile streetcar route.

To read the full story by Megan Kimble of Edible Baja Arizona, click here.