"ULTIMATELY, THE city hopes to widen all of East Sixth Street... About 20 persons were in the audience (at a City Council meeting), with some favoring the widening of the entire street and some protesting any widening in residential areas."
That newspaper snippet from 1953 could have been written yesterday, as Tucson begins a high-priced Fifth/Sixth Street Livability and Circulation Study. The goal of the study, which will cost up to $688,000, "is to develop an action plan to improve the circulation and quality of life along Fifth/Sixth Street for residents, businesses and institutions."
But skeptics abound on both sides of the road. Some believe neighborhoods bordering the corridor will force the city to limit traffic along the streets, while others think the study is designed to justify the eventual widening of Fifth/Sixth all the way from Wilmot Road to Interstate 10. As one conspiracy theorist says, "The secret intent of the study is to make Fifth/Sixth more accessible to commuters and thus reduce the pressure to widen Broadway."
Recent decisions by both the City of Tucson and the University of Arizona also point in that direction. The City Council's El Con big-box vote would result in several thousand more cars a day using Fifth Street. And the University of Arizona's construction of a 1,700-parking-space garage at Sixth Street and Highland Avenue will just add to the congestion.
Project consultant Jim Witkowski disputes the foregone-conclusion theory that a predetermined outcome of the study to either widen or narrow the street has been made.
However, since the jog at Country Club Road linking Fifth Street with Sixth Street was made nearly a half-century ago, the city has taken many steps to increase the amount of traffic on the street. The section near the UA has been widened to five lanes and curbside parking along the street has vanished. As a result, two mostly residential streets have been transformed into a cross-town thoroughfare which had more than 25,000 cars cruising along daily during the 1980s.
The last decade has seen some changes. The completion of the Speedway widening project in 1994, coupled with decreased business at El Con Mall, actually helped substantially reduce traffic volumes along some sections of Fifth/Sixth. The removal of the once-dreaded rush-hour suicide lane, marked by orange cones twice daily, has made it less attractive to eastside commuters.
At the same time, some residents along the street began to push for even more reduction in existing traffic volumes -- not surprising, given that 72 percent of the property fronting the street is residentially zoned. There are also 10 public and two private schools on the street, along with the University of Arizona.
Eventually, several neighborhoods adopted area plans recommending less traffic. One even went so far as to encourage the redesign of Fifth Street near Alvernon Way "to a three-lane cross-section with bike lanes and bus pullout areas."
That same possibility was raised by a planning consultant for the city and University of Arizona. He recommended that near the campus they "explore alternative treatments to Sixth Street including...convert the street to three lanes, landscaped at the edges."
The City Council, while not known for its bold decision-making on this type of transportation issue in car-crazy Tucson, has also taken steps to do something about reducing traffic volumes along Fifth/Sixth Street. In 1995, the council voted to reclassify the street from an arterial to a collector. While only a step on paper, that vote signified that council's desire to see the street carry less, not more, traffic.
The current study, which doesn't seem to be directed at implementing adopted mayor and council policy regarding Fifth/Sixth, kicked off with a series of public meetings in January, with comments centered around safety, particularly for school children. Participants had a range of contradictory opinions about traffic volumes, street width, speed limits and other issues.
While the far-western end of the street is already slated to become the final portion of the little-used Barraza-Aviation Parkway, the future of the four-lane section east of Campbell is still open for heated debate. At the recent public meeting at Rincon Market on Tucson Boulevard and Sixth Street, more than 75 people turned out to share their opinions among the fruits and vegetables. These comments ranged from people who felt the street is under attack by outside forces to those who argued that they should "get into a war with those who use the street to commute." One impassioned speaker had no sooner suggested reducing traffic along the corridor before another yelled out, "Speak for yourself."
On another night, a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 citizens, including one uniformed police officer, attended the meeting at Peter Howell School. Many of those attending the meeting, just two nights after three City Council members walked out of a tension-filled meeting regarding El Con Mall, were nervous about the timing of the study.
The neighbors wanted to know why the city didn't push to widen Broadway instead of "studying" the Fifth/Sixth corridor. City officials explained that the 1997 Pima County transportation bond package included funds to pay for the long-planned Broadway widening project east from Euclid Avenue. Left unmentioned was the fact that this work won't be completed until at least 2008, if ever, because of funding shortages.
After the $106,000 public meeting phase of the study is completed, including a survey of people who drive along the Fifth/Sixth corridor, the second portion of the project will begin in late April. That phase, involving a citizen committee, will develop alternatives for the future of the street. These options will then be evaluated in a third phase. Finally, city staff will make a recommendation to the City Council, likely in the second half of 2001.
During his campaign, Mayor Bob Walkup told The Arizona Daily Star that he favored improving traffic flow along the Fifth/Sixth corridor, leaving it as an arterial. He didn't support altering the nature of the street.
Whatever the outcome of the study, the chances of implementing any real changes along Fifth/Sixth Street appear minimal. There just isn't any money to do any major projects without a transportation tax hike.
"These meetings are like Christmas wish lists," notes one participant. "You know most of these things won't get done."