Lee Urias sits at a table outside Tucson City Hall, their bicycle in sight, locked to a ramp railing. 

They do not own a car, they only bike. What some would consider a hobby, Urias sees as vital. In fact, Urias had just come out of a public meeting downtown to talk about the bike infrastructure plans for the 22nd Street bridge.

The latest version of that plan has cyclists and pedestrians sharing a pathway in the middle of six lanes of traffic, which residents, advocates and experts say is unsafe.

The city has a pattern of planning thoughtful and safe bike and pedestrian infrastructure with community input and then stripping it out of those projects when cost estimates change. Residents were outraged when city officials gutted safety measures and quality infrastructure from the Downtown Links project, sidestepping a lengthy public input process.

At the 22nd Street Bridge Project Discussion, on Sept. 5, 2023, Urias addressed members of the city demanding clarity and equality. “There will be these plans to make it safer for bikes and more connected for bikes,” they said. “And then when it comes to actually building it, suddenly we’re left behind consistently.”

Urias moved to Tucson from Phoenix for two main reasons. It was less hot and they thought it would be easier to ride a bike here. In 2021, the Phoenix metro area accounted for 58% of the state’s bicycle fatalities and 68% of bicycle injuries or 26 fatal collisions and 681 injury accidents. 

“I don’t drive, I don’t know how to drive, I’ve never learned how to drive and I don’t plan to,” Urias said. 

Tucson also has high rates of pedestrian and cyclist injuries and fatalities. In 2022, Pima County reported 10 bicycle fatalities and 155 injuries. There were 61 pedestrian deaths and 210 injuries. Many cyclists say they endure aggression and road rage for simply sharing the road with cars.

But Tucson is known for being a “bike city,” with its sunny weather, desert landscapes and events like El Tour and Cyclovia. The city is pushing for better bike culture and infrastructure with about $150 million from the voter-approved Prop. 411 going to improving bike and pedestrian safety projects and from federal grants like The Reconnecting Communities Program

So Urias was hopeful about the planned new 22nd Street bridge, which was meant to be friendly for bicyclists and pedestrians.

“When I found out about the plan to renew the bridge I was pretty excited,” Urias said. “Especially with the connection to the Aviation Bikeway, which is a really nice bike path.”

Construction for the 22nd Street bridge has now been placed on hold as the community pushes back on the current bridge plans, which call for cyclists and pedestrians to share a pathway in the middle of six lanes of traffic. It would be the only road in Pima County with such a design.

Erica Frazelle is the spokesperson for the Tucson Department of Transportation and Mobility. As of Oct. 18, 2023, in an email, Frazelle confirmed the project is on hold.

“The 22nd Street Bridge Revitalization Project continues to be on hold at this time. We are internally looking at options to present to the public. Once we have a date for the next meeting we will let you know,” Frazelle said in an email.

Concerned community members and neighborhood representatives met with city staff in a hybrid meeting on Sept. 5 at Tucson City Hall to discuss the concerns. There were at least 30 people present, in person and online.

The community’s greatest concerns are the risk it poses to pedestrians and cyclists, as well as the long term environmental effects the emissions from the increase of car activity could have for the surrounding area.

A train runs under the 22nd Street bridge looking southeast on Aug. 11, 2022. Credit: Michael McKisson for Arizona Luminaria

Changing plans

“I’m used to there being opposing positions within the community itself but nobody’s on board with this design,” Manon P. Getsi said with a laugh in an interview. 

Getsi has lived in Tucson for about 30 years. Like most of the community members at the meeting, she understands that there are budget constraints but thinks there has got to be a better way for this bridge to have a more positive impact that supports cars, cyclists and pedestrians alike.

The 22nd Street Widening and Bridge Replacement project has been in the works since 2006 as part of the voter-approved Regional Transportation Authority Plan.

The project will replace the aging existing bridge, which has a weight limit of 15 tons. It would allow commercial trucks and school buses to cross the bridge instead of alternate routes that often endangered neighborhoods. 

The four-lane bridge would be widened to six lanes to allow for more traffic flow and also include that controversial bike and pedestrian pathway.

The bridge project was awarded a $25 million federal grant last year from the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity program, part of the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

From 2008 to 2021, the bridge plans changed several times.

Originally, the city planned for the bridge to include a bike lane and a sidewalk. In 2009, a public design meeting led to plans for a separated bike and pedestrian path on a suspended bridge below the roadway to provide better safety and direct connections to Aviation Bikeway. 

But then inflation in construction prices during the pandemic in 2021 meant the city couldn’t build the bridge as planned, said Director of Transportation and Mobility, Sam Credio. And the plans were changed again. 

This time the city spoke with their hired bridge contractors, Old Pueblo Segmental Bridge Constructors, to talk about ways to save time and money. With the contractor, the city changed the plans, shortening the bridge span and moving the bike and pedestrian path up into the center of the car lanes. 

As of October 2023 the paused plans call for six lanes, three going west and three going east, with a shortened bridge. The suspended pathway that was below the bridge has now been moved up level with the road, cutting off the connections to Aviation Bikeway and placing pedestrians and cyclists between six lanes of traffic. Two HAWK lights on both ends of the bridge would allow access to the middle pathway.

In addition, 22nd Street would be closed there for two to three years, to allow for faster construction and cut costs.

Joey Iuliano is a lecturer in the Sustainable Built Environments program in the College of Architecture at the University of Arizona. He is also a member of the Tucson and Pima County Bicycle Advisory Committee. Most of his work is about making cities more bike friendly and he says the bridge design will be dangerous for people who walk or cycle. 

“Having people stop traffic, go to the crossing, stop traffic, cross the middle, go over the bridge, stop traffic again, cross back to the side and continue on,” is a lot for pedestrians and drivers to manage, he told Arizona Luminaria. 

Iuliano says not all drivers stop at HAWK lights, crosswalks with a button for bikes and pedestrians to turn on a short red light. 

“The fact that it’s across a six-lane road just magnifies that level of risk,” he said. 

One of the other concerns Iuliano has is that pedestrians and cyclists will be potentially riding between six lanes of traffic and it will be “incredibly loud” because of how the city will be rerouting traffic through this bridge. 

Some cyclists were also worried about the increase in air emissions. For bicyclists and pedestrians, not only will the bridge be unpleasant but also just not a healthy place to walk or ride.

Left to right: Pamela Francis, Manon P. Getsi, Lee Urias and Andrew Christopher at the 22nd Street bridge project discussion on Sept. 5, 2023 at Tucson City Hall. Members of the community came together to discuss their pressing concerns over the safety and overall impact of the bridge. Credit: Teressa Enriquez

Community pushback

While many community members at the meeting agreed the aging 22nd Street bridge needs to be replaced to allow for buses and commercial trucks to pass over, instead of driving through neighborhoods, concerned community members said this version of the bridge is not safe for pedestrians and cyclists.

“Right now it’s not easy for cyclists to get over that bridge,” said Getsi, who lives in the Arroyo Chico neighborhood.

She thinks about her 80-year-old father using the bridge on his bicycle. “He doesn’t like the bridge now either. However, whatever they’re getting ready to do is going to ruin this neighborhood,” she said.

Many community members at the meeting were also anxious about the implementation of the HAWK lights, saying some drivers don’t stop when the lights go on.

“Something that I heard more recently was somebody, well a lot of cyclists, call the HAWK button, they call it the ‘beg’ button. Where you’re begging cars to please stop for you,” Urias said. 

Getsi, 55, cycled regularly when she lived in Chicago. She came to Tucson partly because of some autoimmune issues and found she did better in warmer climates. 

“When I first moved here, like the first seven, eight years, I thought I was in paradise,” Getsi said. “But there’s been a lot of bad planning that’s happened since I’ve lived here that has been done in the interests of development instead of people.” 

She shares the same concern regarding safety about the the pedestrian and bike pathway.

“It’s gonna make life impossible for people in Parkway Terrace, Barrio Central, Julia Keane, Arroyo Chico, it’s not gonna be good for Broadmoor,” and many other neighborhood residents who will have to navigate the construction, traffic obstruction and its long term environmental impact, she said.

Environmental impact

Andrew Christopher, 30, is the president of the Arroyo Chico neighborhood association and has been actively invested in the 22nd Street bridge construction for years now. He spoke to Arizona Luminaria about the safety issues and the environmental impacts and stressors many people may be overlooking.

Christopher talked about the increase in emissions the bridge would bring. The cars idling in traffic, the cars stopping at the bottom of the bridge having to stop and start again, all in addition to the rail yard.

Under the 22nd Street bridge is a Union Pacific rail hub surrounded closely by nearby neighborhoods like Arroyo Chico, Julia Keene and others near them. Christopher said that you can see dark smoke belching up from the rail yard daily. 

“I wake up pretty early and usually up around six and every morning you can smell it. It just smells like diesel exhaust and Arroyo Chico isn’t even the closest neighborhood to that,” Christopher said. 

“I think it’s an additional layer that people don’t realize about this part of town and I think it requires some extra sensitivity when you’re doing other transportation projects that we do have control over,” Christopher said.

“How can we limit or reduce the greenhouse gases and harmful chemicals that people are exposed to knowing that we’re not going to get rid of all of it?”

Traffic pollution can cause impaired lung function, asthma attacks in children, and even cardiovascular diseases, according to the American Lung Association.

“It’s a piece of infrastructure that is gonna likely outlive me and a lot of people in the neighborhood. So if we don’t get it right, we’re gonna be stuck with those consequences forever,” Christopher said.

Alternative transportation

Like many Tucsonans, UA researcher Iuliano understands that the bridge definitely needs fixing, but says the current plan is not the answer. 

In the plans that are now on hold, the bridge has 11-foot-wide lanes with the innermost lanes at 13 feet. Iuliano said the wider you make lanes, the faster drivers will go. 

At the Sept. 5 meeting, there were plenty of people voicing concerns about the potential for pollution, injuries and deaths.

In Arizona, in 2022, high speeds were cited and determined by law enforcement as factors in serious crashes that resulted in 426 facilities and 20,069 injuries.

“If you keep building wider roads, you will get more people driving. Just because people are shifting more to electric vehicles that does not solve the congestion issues,” Iuliano said. “The only way you solve congestion is if you have fewer people driving, and that means you have to make it safer to walk, safer to bike, more convenient and safer to take transit.”

Iuliano said there are many different ways to build this bridge. 

For example, instead of making the bridge three lanes on each side, one lane could be designated for transit so buses and passengers don’t have to sit in traffic. Or, one lane could be protected from cars and designated for cyclists and pedestrians, he said.

“There are things that we can do that can actually address the climate crisis and get our emissions down and get people out of cars,” Iuliano said.

“If we’re going to be taking the climate crisis seriously, we can’t keep building wider roads,” he said. “Continuing to build an infrastructure that encourages people to drive more does not address the climate crisis.”

This story is supported by an internship from the Resilience Internships and Student Experiences (RISE) Program at the University of Arizona.

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