Tucson city planners unveiled an updated design for the new 22nd Street bridge that addresses many concerns of bicyclists, walkers and neighbors who balked at earlier revisions that were unsafe and disconnected from existing infrastructure.
But this new design option, presented at a Monday, Nov. 6 public meeting, removes vehicle access to Aviation Highway, which residents say could cause traffic backups surrounding their neighborhoods.
Getting traffic off surrounding streets has been one of the main goals of this project because the current aging bridge has a 15-ton weight limit, so commercial vehicles and buses must use alternate routes.
The replacement of the bridge on 22nd Street over Aviation Highway and the Union Pacific rail yard has been in the works since 2006 as part of the voter-approved Regional Transportation Authority Plan. From 2008 to 2023, the bridge plans have changed several times.
The last revision spurred a backlash after city officials sidestepped a public design process that had included safety measures. Citing cost increases, the city’s plan had called for six traffic lanes, three going east and three going west. In the middle of these six lanes there was a 12-foot bicycle and pedestrian multi-use pathway. The only way to get to that middle pathway was through lighted HAWK crosswalks on both the west and east ends. There were no direct connections to Aviation Bikeway.
At public meetings and through feedback in recent months, neighbors, cyclists and walkers expressed concern that the bridge plan would place pedestrians and cyclists in danger and do more harm than good to the nearby neighborhoods. Many people also worried about the environmental repercussions the increase of traffic would bring to the surrounding area, in addition to the existing emissions from the train yard.
City officials said Tuesday that the new design incorporates feedback from residents.
“At that time (the last meeting) we committed to going back and taking a look at the design and returning back to you all with what we were able to come up with and respond to your comments. And so that’s really what we’re here to do,” said Sam Credio, Tucson’s director of transportation and mobility.
The newest version, called the 2023 Public Input Optimized Design, still has six lanes of traffic but the 12-foot multi-use pathway has been completely removed from the middle. There are now separate six-foot bike and pedestrian paths on the outside of the driving lanes on either side. Concrete barriers have been added to separate the pathways from traffic. The driving lanes remain 11 feet.
There are direct connections to get on and off the bridge, as well as direct connections to Aviation Bikeway, eliminating the need for HAWK lights. In this optimized plan, the car ramps are gone which city officials said would also help with flooding issues because there will be no tunnels, like there were in a previous iteration.
Manon P. Getsi, who also attended a September city meeting on the issue, explained at the Nov. 6 meeting how cutting off the ramp to Aviation Highway will make it more difficult for drivers to get downtown quickly, because of the potential build up of traffic it would cause.
“I just don’t see how stressed neighborhoods are going to be able to handle that,” Getsi said, “Our travel times are going to be so long that we won’t be able to make 5:30 meetings to give our public input.”
The city is taking feedback on this option and will be going back out to the public with multiple meetings to let people know of changes and updates, according to Erica Frazelle, the transportation department’s public information officer.
Credio said there is an option where the Aviation ramp can be retained but it adds significant time and cost to the redesign, as well as analysis of technical and safety standards that would have to go through the Arizona Department of Transportation. It would also cause disconnection of the multi-use pathway onto the bridge.
“This design that we showed you today requires redesign of the current plans,” Credio said at the meeting. “That’s about a four to six month redesign process.”
Credio said it will take longer if they put the ramp back in but said they would take a look at how it might work. Residents would likely get a new update in the beginning of next year, he said.
Josh Jacobson owns a Lucky Wishbone restaurant near the new bridge. He was at the meeting and expressed concerns about how the full closure of traffic around the bridge during construction could harm local businesses by reducing the number of people traveling through the area.
“Please figure out a way to keep that open especially during the course of construction because we’re going to go dead in that area,” Jacobsen said.
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. Iuliano said he wanted to commend the redesign and thought it addressed a lot of issues that he and the Bike Advisory Committee had with the overall handling of the multi-use pathway.
Iuliano also wanted to address residents who want the city to prioritize the use of cars over bike access or alternative transportation.
“It’s really important to recognize that if you make it safer for people to ride, which a design like this is really starting to get at, then there’s gonna be fewer people driving in front of you,” Iuliano said.
He also said adding safe, accessible bike infrastructure can reduce traffic congestion for drivers.
“Keep in mind, most trips in the U.S. — about 50%, 51% — are three miles or less. So if we can make those trips accessible on bike, fewer people (are) driving and a quicker commute for you,” he said.
Iuliano said he understands that not everyone can bike and not everyone chooses to, but there also needs to be change to evoke change.
“I know the city has declared a climate crisis and we’re taking it seriously with the Million Trees Initiatives and stuff, but prioritizing cars does not take that seriously,” he said. “Prioritizing transit, walking and biking does, so we have to make it safer for people to walk and bike.”
Andrew Christopher, the president of the nearby Arroyo Chico neighborhood association, also attended the previous meeting. He bikes and drives around the city and said the Aviation Highway ramp would be beneficial to both modes of transportation.
“When we have the opportunity to make things like Aviation more efficient and we can funnel more car traffic onto that versus following more traffic onto surface streets, we create that bigger separation for that physical distance between bicycles, pedestrians and automobiles. And I think ultimately that’s safer for everyone.”