Light rail benefits clear for Canberra: Tucson tram boss

Light rail benefits clear for Canberra: Tucson tram boss

The man behind a successful light rail development in Arizona says Canberra will see increased property prices, public transport use and growing density as a result of the Gungahlin tramline.

This week Planning Minister Mick Gentleman toured the Sun Link streetcar system in Tucson, Arizona, as part of an overseas delegation considering planning and urban renewal in the United States and Canada.

Planning Minister Mick Gentleman and members of an ACT delegation in Tuscon, Arizona, in February 2016.

Planning Minister Mick Gentleman and members of an ACT delegation in Tuscon, Arizona, in February 2016.

The $US196 million ($270 million) Sun Link development took less than two years to build and includes a fleet of eight trams running on a six kilometre route.

The system started operations in downtown Tucson in July 2014, taking 60,000 people on its opening weekend.


It carries about 4000 people each weekday and is integrated with the city's buses. Tucson's population is 520,000.

After hosting members of the delegation, Sun Link's general manager Steve Bethel said the ACT government needed to work hard to communicate its vision for the planned Capital Metro tramline, including during construction, starting this year.

"The construction is quite intense. Our idea was always to keep businesses accessible, even though construction was going on," he said.

"We did a lot of outreach to the public, especially in construction areas. There is some pain to putting in a rail system and construction is the worst part."

He said Sun Link had delivered $US1.5 billion ($2.07 billion) worth of economic development along its route corridor.

"I have been involved in five rail start ups... and I can tell you in the US that the big economic boom that goes along the corridor after it's built is just tremendous. Property values go up and people just want to be around light rail systems," he said.

"It started prior to construction. Once developers and entrepreneurs realised light rail was a reality, the benefits started."

"In Tucson's case, downtown was very low with a lot of closed businesses and a lot of empty buildings along the corridor. Today there is very little real estate available and I think 50 new bars went in along the alignment and five hotels are being built."

Mr Bethel said Arizona did not have a public transport culture like cities in America's north west and east, but the tram had seen growth in use and mobility.

Canberrans should be patient if delays in construction happen, as faced by Washington, DC, where a new tram will begin operations this weekend.

"You have to be on top of vehicle procurement and make sure you have that early enough so if there is any delay on the vehicles, you have enough lead time. You also need good operational people who have done this before on staff."

Mr Bethel said "a great majority" of skeptics had been convinced of Tucson's development.

"You will never get everyone. I know that people will start buying up property and businesses will succeed in Canberra," he said.

Mr Gentleman will visit Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon before travelling to Vancouver, Canada.

The trip includes tours public bicycle programs, study of land use planning, density in and affordable housing, and meetings with city administrators and public transport authorities.

Tom McIlroy is a political reporter for The Australian Financial Review in the federal press gallery at Parliament House.

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