Sep 4, 2013 12:10 AM by Tom McNamara
The tracks are down, and the first Modern Streetcar has finally rolled into Tucson.
For the next few months, crews will test that car on tracks snaking through parts of the city.
But already, some riders on two wheels say the project is way off track, and poses a serious threat to their safety.
You've heard of the ‘third rail' in politics, meaning topics that are very controversial.
Well, Tucson's nearly $200M Modern Streetcar has an apparent third rail of its own.
As the News 4 Tucson Investigators uncovered, it dates back to a decision the City of Tucson made two years ago.
Kylie Walzak, an avid cyclist with the Living Streets Alliance, launched the Streetcar Crash Tracker on their website, as a way for cyclists to report crashes they had along the route. They've had 60 reports in a little over a year. The group is now working with the City of Tucson to improve safety.
"We're learning a lot from other communities that have dealt successfully with streetcar tracks and bicycling - places like Portland have a lot to teach us, and we're sharing that information with them and they're receptive," Walzak says.
One big issue is the type of track the City of Tucson used for the Modern Streetcar rails.
The News 4 Tucson Investigators have learned, members of the Tucson-Pima Bicycle Advisory Committee warned city leaders, there could be problems with Tee rail versus another type, called Block rail.
A 2011 memo warned "the gap with t-rail is larger and more irregular, and much more likely to catch the tires of bicyclists, causing them to crash."
Ward 6 Tucson City Council Member Steve Kozachik, a bicyclist himself, tells the News 4 Tucson Investigators, he had the same concern. And, he says there could be other risks.
"Just from a good faith standpoint, I wish we would have put in those other rails, number one. Number two, we've got to make sure we're providing ample room on the sides of these things so people aren't getting hit by the cars as they're going off," Kozachik says.
Or people could also be hit by bikes, says Kozachik.
Modern streetcar project manager Shellie Ginn tells the News 4 Tucson Investigators, the city has, in fact, made safety a top priority. She also says Block rail simply wasn't available at the time.
"The risk involved in selecting something that had not been used, and we didn't know if it was going to be rolled at that time or not, was not worth taking, and so, we went with the Tee rail," Ginn says.
The big controversy is over a tiny gap of just two inches, no matter what rail was used. Bicyclists worry that their tires will become stuck in this gap, and they'll be thrown from their bikes and injured, or even thrown into traffic.
In fact, city officials tell the News 4 Tucson Investigators Tee rail and Block rail, and another type of rail have the exact same two-inch gap in the middle, so the Tee rail was as good as any to use.
The Tee rail was some $3M cheaper to buy, and, it's made in the U.S., so it complies with the "Buy America" requirement for projects to get federal funding.
But now, the city is already facing a $3M lawsuit from a bicyclist who says she was seriously injured when her bike tire got caught in the rails.
To help prevent that, the city has put up new signs along the route to warn cyclists. The city has also launched a public education campaign.
"We want them to focus maybe less on their cell phones and music, and a little bit more on their surroundings, and so that's why this big push is happening right now," Ginn says.
That's because the city says the new electric streetcar is quiet, and those tracks are so new, that bicycle riders aren't used to them.
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