Loving the Loop

By Romi Carrell Wittman –

How Private-Public Cooperation Created a Tucson Crown Jewel

One would be hard-pressed to find someone who could have predicted that a severe, days-long thunderstorm and flood would one day result in The Loop, a 131-mile system of paved, shared-use paths that encircles Tucson. 

“It’s one of the largest and finest recreational amenities in the country,” said Chuck Huckelberry, Pima County administrator and the major force behind the ambitious project. 

The Loop touches virtually every part of town, both the city proper and the unincorporated areas of Pima County, as well as Marana, Oro Valley, South Tucson and Vail. 

But how did a major flood lead to The Loop? It’s a story of collaboration and dedication that spans nearly 40 years. 

In late September 1983, Tucson experienced record-breaking flooding when Tropical Storm Octave brought nearly seven inches of rain over four days. Typically dry riverbeds were overwhelmed, causing many structures along their banks to collapse into the floodwaters. The rivers themselves were re-routed as floodwaters gouged out chunks of riverbanks. Statewide the damage was severe: Some 10,000 people were left homeless and 13 people died. According to Pima County, total flood damage reached nearly $300 million, or roughly $600 million in today’s dollars. 

The county, through the Regional Flood Control District, sought to prevent future damage and loss of life. It undertook a major bank protection project, using soil cement to shore up riverbanks throughout the county. But an interesting thing started to happen as engineers made their way through all affected areas: People used the unpaved maintenance access paths for walking, jogging and cycling. The idea of The Loop was hatched. 

In 1986, as the county continued its flood control improvements on the Rillito River, it installed the first features of The Loop – parks along the river and the first section of paved path along the Rillito from Campbell Avenue west to Oracle Road. Local residents loved it.

“It’s been a long journey for me,” said Suzanne Shields, director of the Pima County Regional Flood Control District who has been involved with the project since its inception. She offered her perspective at the recent Loop dedication ceremonies. “We talked to each neighborhood. We wanted permanence, so we paved it and striped it.”

Curtis Lueck, who serves on The Loop Advisory Committee, said, “Paving it for public use is really inexpensive. It’s only about $200,000 a mile above and beyond what they spent for flood control. That’s a lot of bang for the buck.” 

To offset expenses, the county formed public-private partnerships, such as the one with Tucson Medical Center. Julia Strange, VP of community benefit at TMC, said, “TMC’s goal is to keep people healthy and out of the hospital.” Partnering with the folks behind The Loop construction made a lot of sense for a variety of reasons. “We’ve taken a very functional need and leveraged that effort into making it a real community asset that makes physical activity accessible,” Strange said. “That’s critical to public health and critical to our ongoing commitment to public health.”

“Most non-cyclists don’t know that Tucson is a mecca for biking pros for training,” said Linda Fahey, a board member of the nonprofit El Grupo, which helps underserved kids get access to bikes. “The Loop has added a whole other element of people who ride recreationally. We’re seeing different kinds of riders.” 

There are other benefits that stem from The Loop. Many folks use it to commute to and from work, which means fewer cars are on the road and less emissions are in the air. A less tangible, but just as valuable benefit has emerged around the The Loop: a sense of community. 

“These kinds of things create a great sense of community because people meet there, they form running groups, they meet up to walk,” Strange said. “They get to know one another.” 

There is great commercial potential, too. 

“Bicyclists love three things,” Lueck said. “They love biking, they love coffee and they love beer. There is a lot of opportunity for businesses along The Loop.” 

Many developers are jumping at that opportunity. Gene Goldstein, president of Bramic Design Group, represents clients who own office property adjacent to The Loop near the Hilton East on Broadway between Pantano Road and Kolb Road. He is working on getting the property rezoned from office space, O-3, to commercial, C-1. Once that’s complete, the three buildings, some 53,000 square feet, will be leased out as restaurant and retail space. 

“It had been mostly vacant office space,” Goldstein said. “Once the rezoning process is complete, it will be very conducive to people traveling The Loop.” 

Economic development organizations are using The Loop as a means to attract talent and businesses to Tucson. Amber Smith, president and CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce, said, “The clear economic impact of cycling, and The Loop by extension, has been measured in the tens of millions of dollars annually.” She added that the chamber’s Talent Attraction Taskforce has cited The Loop as a major asset for employee recruitment. “Our climate and outdoor living is an enormous recruitment tool and The Loop supports these efforts,” she said. 

The Loop has a lot of tourism potential as well. Arizona already ranks high in lists of best places for destination bicycling. Arizona’s great year-round riding weather and the hundreds of biking events make it a sought-after locale. 

Lee McLaughlin, senior director of marketing at Visit Tucson, said The Loop offers riders an experience they can’t get elsewhere. “To be able to cover that distance – 131 miles – without cars is very unique. Cyclists can go almost all the way from Mission San Xavier to the Fantasy Island mountain-biking park on the eastside. Being able to cover that amount of ground on a dedicated path is a big attraction for cyclists.”

Improvements continue to be made to The Loop and an app is in the works. 

Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said, “The completed Loop is a great amenity for Tucson. Now we have to work to connect the wheel to the spokes, so to speak, and complete a bike and pedestrian network that runs through Tucson as well as around it.”

“Signage along The Loop could be better,” added Lueck. “So we’re working with partners to come up with an app that tells you where you’re at so if you need to call for help, you can give them your exact location. We’d also like to include businesses on The Loop so riders know where they can stop to have a bite to eat or grab a cup of coffee.” 

The Loop is already emerging as one of Tucson’s crown jewels and it was only possible through the long-term vision, collaboration and cooperation of groups throughout the community. 

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