Driving Force for Tucson’s Modern Streetcar – Shellie Ginn Helped Steer Project to Fruition

By David B. Pittman –

Though thousands of people played a role in creating Tucson’s Modern Streetcar, none was as intricately involved for a longer period of time than Shellie Ginn.

Ginn has been working on the streetcar concept, plan, design, construction and operation for 10 years, practically from start to finish.

She served as the city staff member for the citizen’s committee that first recommended and endorsed the development of the streetcar to then-Mayor Bob Walkup and the Tucson City Council. She was part of the team that pitched the idea to the Transportation Authority, which included it in a package of proposals approved by voters. She was among those who successfully procured federal funds to build the project.

As streetcar program administrator for the city’s Department of Transportation, Ginn was involved in selecting the companies that built the project and oversaw construction of the streetcar rail line and its maintenance facility.

And after the streetcar system was built, she was involved in testing it and in planning and overseeing its eventual operation.

“Shellie was there from the beginning and she was there all the time,” said Walkup. “After her involvement with the Citizens Advisory Committee, she worked through planning issues with the city and the actual design of the streetcar at a time when a lot of critical decisions had to be made. She did a superb job overseeing construction of the project. We could not have been successful without her and people like her.”

Ginn, a Tucson native, began her transportation career in parking and transportation services at the University of Arizona. She later worked for seven years in operations and planning at a public transit system in Vancouver, Wash. In 2000, she returned to Tucson where she took a position as bicycle and pedestrian coordinator in the city’s transportation department.

Initially, the idea of a rail system in Tucson was considered impractical and was pooh-poohed by transportation planners and political leaders. However, supporters worked hard to change that view.

Steve Farley, now a state lawmaker, was among the founders of Tucsonans for Sensible Transportation, a small grass-roots group that gave presentations about the possibilities of rail transit to neighborhood groups, Rotary clubs and anyone else who would listen. Tucsonans for Sensible Transportation helped pave the way for consideration of the streetcar.

When Ginn was selected to oversee the 35-member citizens committee to look into ways to improve transportation connectivity in Tucson, she had a well-rounded transportation background. However, at that time she had no idea she was about to embark on a decade-long endeavor that would ultimately lead to the creation and operation of Tucson’s Modern Streetcar.

“The committee was looking at how we might connect our activity centers and if the streetcar was the right mode to accomplish that,” Ginn said. “At that time, it was just a study.”

It was just another citizens’ group doing another analysis that would be bound into another voluminous publication to gather dust on a shelf or be used as an office doorstop. But this time something unusual happened – it became a reality.

“When the group got started on this, we had no funding,” Ginn said. “We had enough funding to do planning, but there was absolutely no funding to make it happen.”

Ginn said the group also had something that is often missing from such endeavors – an open-minded willingness to explore possibilities and work together.

“No one came in with preconceived notions,” she said. “We had representatives from many of the neighborhoods and all the special interest groups like the Bicycle Advisory Committee, the Commission on Disabilities, the University of Arizona and representatives of downtown and Main Gate Square.

“Remember, this was early in the 2000s and in the decade earlier we had gone through the widening of several roadways and intersections. The intersection of Campbell and Speedway was an example of that. We wanted to think of a different way of providing additional transportation capacity on the roadways without moving the curbs. Clean air and energy efficiency were on everybody’s mind.”

The citizens group considered several options, including rubber-tired trolley cars, more optimized buses, a streetcar system – or doing nothing at all.

Ginn said what really clinched the streetcar for the group and brought environmental, business and political interests together was the economic development potential of the streetcar.

“The Citizens Liaison Group and business owners were able to listen to and talk to developers from Portland (Ore.), who discussed their successful efforts building projects along a streetcar line there,” she said. “They explained that there were a lot of similarities between their first starter line and what we were considering for Tucson.”

Ginn said soon thereafter the group came up with the concept that, for the most part, is the four-mile streetcar system that began operating July 25. It is a system that connects major activity centers – UA, the Arizona Health Sciences Center, the Main Gate Square Business District, the 4th Avenue Business District, downtown and the Mercado District.

It wasn’t until 2006 – the year local voters approved a Regional Transportation Authority proposal authorizing $87.7 million to build the streetcar system – that Ginn began believing the streetcar proposal actually had a chance of coming to fruition. However, there was still a major hurdle to clear because the RTA spending was contingent on the city also receiving federal funding for the project.

Ginn successfully presented the streetcar proposal to the RTA, which put it on a list of transportation projects that went on the ballot.

“When the RTA package was approved by the voters, the federal government perked up and showed a lot more interest in what we were doing,” Ginn said. “We had been working with the Federal Transit Administration for a long time, but with voter approval and a local commitment to provide funding, they began taking us much more seriously.”

After several unsuccessful attempts to capture the needed federal money, the city hit pay dirt in 2010 when it received a $63 million Transportation and Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery grant from the FTA, which was part of a stimulus package pushed by President Barak Obama for “shovel ready” projects.

“We spent the summer of 2009 putting together an application for the TIGER grant and getting it in,” Ginn said. “It was February 2010 when we received it. That was when the streetcar became a reality. That was when I could finally say, ‘Oh my God, we did it.’ ”

The truth is, in many ways, the work was just beginning.

“From 2010 to now, a lot of things happened in a very short period of time,” Ginn said. “All of the design, going out for bids on a massive construction project, actual construction of a maintenance facility, a huge underground effort of moving and expanding utility infrastructure downtown and the actual construction of a four-mile streetcar rail system. It was a huge undertaking.

“This project is a great benefit to this community and it was accomplished by a massive team of people that I am proud to have been a part of. It was one of those unique, signature projects in which all of us who worked on it already realize how special it is. You don’t get handed this kind of project on a regular basis.”

During construction, Ginn said, she met weekly, often daily, with a project management team that worked diligently to ensure “everyone was highly aware of what was going on at all levels and that we weren’t working in silos. Then if we needed to dig down into something in great detail, we could do that.”

When asked to describe Ginn’s contribution to the streetcar project, Steve Christy, immediate past chairman of the RTA and current chairman of the Arizona Transportation Board, said, “Shellie’s contribution was phenomenal. She put her heart and soul into the whole project. There were certain issues that came up from time to time – such as underground utility issues, delays in manufacturing the streetcar up in Oregon and many others – but she was able to work through all those problems and stay on task.”

Farley also praised Ginn’s involvement in planning, building and operating the streetcar. “Shellie Ginn has been amazing,” he said. “She understands all aspects of the project and really cares about it. I am grateful to her for all she has done.”

So what will Ginn do when operation of the streetcar system is considered routine?

“I work in Tucson transportation and there is a lot to do,” she said. “It’s not going to be a problem of not having anything on my plate.

“I really would love my legacy to be leaving this city a better place than when I came into it. I love public service for that reason.”

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