Streetcar Tracks Now Link UA to Downtown

November 29, 2012

By Teya Vitu

Except for two blocks on Park Avenue, all the streetcar tracks are now in place from the 2nd Street Garage at the University of Arizona to Congress Street just short of Stone Avenue.

Streetcar work should be done on 4th Avenue by Dec. 5

The 4th Avenue tracks south of 7th Street were the most recent to be set in concrete on Nov. 27, and all of 4th Avenue is expected to reopen by Dec. 5. The avenue will then be available to set up booths for the 4th Avenue Street Fair.

Streetcar track installation is now finishing the first phase and entering the second phase.

The first phase involved relocating and replacing utility lines along the streetcar route and installing most of the track from the University of Arizona Medical Center to Congress Street and Church Avenue.

The second phase largely revolves round installing curved track where the streetcar turns a corner, and laying the track on Broadway, Granada, across the new Luis G. Gutierrez Bridge and to the western terminus at the Mercado San Agustin.

The most significant thorn in the side of this project has been the Congress block between Stone and Church avenues – the block with the Fox Theatre, Enoteca Pizzeria and Wine Bar, Rice House, Caffé Milano and Brueggers Bagels.

Instead of reopening in mid-October as did the Congress stretch from Toole Avenue to Scott Avenue, the block in front of the Fox likely won’t see traffic until mid-January.

This curve is at 4th Avenue and University Boulevard.

“We have one more obstacle to get by down there,” said Jesse Gutierrez, the streetcar project construction manager for the Tucson Transportation Department. “There is a Tucson Electric Power vault right in the middle of the road.”

The 32-by-15-foot electric vault fills half the street. The water, sewer, cable, other utilities and the streetcar track must fit in the other half, but there’s not enough room. Gutierrez engineered a solution to run the water line in a gap less than two feet wide between the curb and the vault.

“It’s on the spot,” Gutierrez said about shifting gears. “You see me make decisions on the go.”

Streetcar street construction started April 9. The large preponderance of work has involved utility work. Laying track and setting tracks in concrete take no more than a day or two for a block or two.

Phase Two started a couple weeks early in mid-October. Phase One ultimately is wrapping on schedule, even if plans were endlessly revised the past eight months.

“It’s always a little give and take on this project,” Gutierrez said. “It means you’ve got to be going seven days a week, weeks on end to get a little ahead. People always say work smart, not hard. We have to work smart and hard.”

Sewer work and maintaining traffic flow for pedestrians and vehicles in parts of the project slows work down.

Then there’s the weather, even more challenging with recent highs in the 80s and lows in the 40s than in summer. Setting rail and pouring concrete are all subject to expansion an contraction as temperatures change during the day.

This turnout in front of Time Market on University Boulevard will allow streetcars to change direction when 4th Avenue is closed for the two annual street fairs.

“When you get 40-degree swings of temperature with so much rail lying around, that’s a lot of expansion and contraction,” Gutierrez said. “We have to do a lot of calculating and planning when we set rail to get a neutral rail temperature.”

He is talking about hitting the sweet spot with temperature to set the rail when the temperature is close to the average temperature for the year.

The next rail to get installed will be on Park Avenue between 2nd Street and University Boulevard. That should be done in six to eight weeks. Once those two blocks are done and electric conductors are strung overhead, a streetcar could conceivably run from the 2nd Street Garage to Stone Avenue.

That will happen to coincide with when the first streetcar delivery is expected in February, the same month that the streetcar maintenance and storage facility is completed. Test runs of the first streetcar could start soon thereafter, though passenger service is not scheduled to start until November 2013.

Phase Two started in mid-October in several locations: Granada Avenue, the intersection at 4th Avenue and University Boulevard, and Broadway.

In Downtown, the work will shift from Congress to Broadway in the coming weeks.

Broadway has already seen overnight work since early July to install new water line crossings main water lines between Stone and Toole. Right now, Broadway is closed between Stone and Church to deal with a “spaghetti bowl of utility lines.”

Once that block is resolved, full-scale streetcar work will start on Broadway from Toole to Granada, likely in the first or second week of December. Broadway is wider than Congress so one lane of traffic should nearly always be open to vehicle traffic, Gutierrez said.

Granada already has lane restrictions south of Broadway as water and sewer line work is underway.

Track work to turn a corner at an intersection was saved until Phase Two because it’s a more complex process. Crews got a head start on the turn at University and 4th Avenue, which recently was put in the ground.

The sidewalk was doubled in width with brick pavers between 5th and 6th Avenue.

“The curves are double railed. It’s called a guard rail,” Gutierrez said. “It’s a lot more labor intensive than a single rail because they need to be spaced out and bolted together. The geometry has to be perfect, just perfect.”

Pole installation for the overhead conductor system started in the middle of October.

“There’s poles along the whole stretch we’ve been working on. We are averaging 20 poles a day,” Gutierrez said.

The streetcar stops are getting built now. Crews are working on the concrete foundations in the middle of streets or along sidewalks and about a half dozen stop shelters are already built but still in the shop.

About 150 people are now at work along the streetcar route. Overall, about 500 people have “touched the project” at some time since April. Old Pueblo Trackworks – a partnership with Granite Construction and Lakeville, Minn.-based RailWorks Track Systems – is the project’s general contractor.