Tucson tales: SunLink ties Fourth Ave business with university


By Chris Ledermuller, Staff Writer

Dana Marschz, Steve Coogan’s drama teacher in “Hamlet 2,” counsels one of his students by saying, “[Y]ou’re going to have a magical life. Because no matter where you go, it’s always going to be better than Tucson.”

Ouch! To add insult to injury, the 2008 comedy film that hatchets Tucson was not even filmed in the city, but in Albuquerque, N.M.

Serving as the brunt of a feature-length pop culture joke did nothing to help the reputation of Arizona’s second-largest city. The film intoned that Tucson is “where dreams go to die.”

For anyone seeking outdoors adventure, authentic history, a pedestrian- and bike-friendly urban core, adventurous food, great microbreweries, lively music, fine arts or a college town atmosphere, Tucson is a dream come true.

In the end, Tucson laughs last and laughs best. The city is a cauldron bubbling with hipness, yet has flown under the radar of the new or old media cognoscenti who can call something cool and have the street cred to make it stick. Tucson has laid the tracks — figuratively and literally — to stake its claim to greatness.

In July, Tucson joined the U.S. urban rail renaissance with the inauguration of SunLink, a modern streetcar line connecting downtown, the Fourth Avenue business district and the University of Arizona. It is barely 4 miles long, but SunLink makes up for its narrow reach by putting riders within footsteps of cultural attractions, vibrant businesses and scholarly resources.

First, it is important to distinguish a streetcar like SunLink from light rail. Casually, “streetcars” or “trolleys” and “light rail” are thought of as one and the same, but similarities end above the steel wheel.

Light rail, such as Los Angeles’ Metro Rail lines or the San Diego Trolley, typically has stations spaced about a mile apart, has higher speeds to serve longer-distance travelers and has exclusive rights of way.

Streetcars, on the other hand, are more like city buses on tracks. They travel at lower speeds, have closely spaced stops or stations, and the tracks are shared with motorists and cyclists. SunLink’s fares are $1.50 for a single ride or $4 for an unlimited-ride day pass — identical to the buses of the streetcar’s operator, SunTran.

Fares are purchased from vending machines at the stations and loaded on SunGO cards. The cards must be validated on readers aboard the streetcar and presented to roving fare inspectors as proof of payment. The SunGO cards are also valid on SunTran buses.

Streetcars serve as a movable urban amenity rather than a utilitarian mode of transportation. SunLink, like the modern streetcar systems in Portland, Ore.; Seattle; Tacoma, Wash.; and Washington, D.C.; showcase distinctive neighborhoods or business districts — and prime the pump for attracting residential, commercial and retail development.

Tucson leaders hope SunLink serves as the catalyst for more residences, businesses and shops along the route, though that would just be icing on an already rich cake. There’s plenty to see, hear, taste, touch and experience at every SunLink stop and the three destinations along the line.


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