Editor's note: For three weeks, the EXPLORER has been breaking down the RTA's proposed plan and explaining how it affects the Northwest and Foothills area. The final part of the three-part series will focus on the projected transit improvements. To find out what was left out of the RTA plan, see related story on page 7.

August 24, 2005 - Nobody likes a busy morning commute, with its heavy traffic, construction delays and aggressive drivers, and no one knows that better than Michael Hickok. The 34-year-old bachelor spends most of his day commuting. Motorists whiz by him as they commute hurriedly down North First Avenue on their way to work. He is the man with glasses driving much slower, in a wheelchair.

Hickok must leave his Oro Valley home before many commuters have had their morning coffee. He has no choice. It is a two-mile wheelchair ride to the nearest bus stop on North Oracle Road, and the bus stops running at 8 a.m., he said.

Without a license and with no car, Hickok relies on Tucson's Sun Tran bus service to get him into town, a place he finds himself needing and wanting to go to frequently.

For Hickok and many other mass transit riders who rely on the bus service, Oro Valley service is limited in hours and frequency and in many cases lacks any weekend service at all.

"I'm a Monday through Friday person right now," Hickok said. "I can't do anything on the weekends."

Hickok is mostly stranded on the weekends because no bus service runs into Oro Valley on the weekends and riding his wheelchair down Oracle Road to catch a more localized bus just isn't practical.

"Most people think we (people in wheelchairs) don't have lives," Hickok said. "Which is not true. When you want to do something for transportation, you're always dependent on other people."

Limited weekend service is one area of contention for Hickok. The other is the limited hours. If Hickok goes into town on the 8 a.m. bus, there is not another bus that could bring him back into Oro Valley until 5 p.m. That leaves Hickok stuck with no way to get anywhere, he said.

Part of the problem is that Sun Tran is not a regional bus service. It is Tucson's city service. Other governments, including Pima County, Oro Valley and Marana, must pay Tucson to extend Sun Tran's routes into their jurisdictions.

Hickok is not the only Sun Tran user who is upset about the lack of bus frequency in Oro Valley and Marana. That is why about 25 percent of the proposed Regional Transportation Authority's transportation improvement project is dedicated to improving public transportation regionally.

The RTA is proposing extending weekday evening bus service until 11 p.m. Currently, most of the buses return to the south side bus garage starting at 7:30 p.m., said George Caria, Sun Tran general manager and member of the RTA's Technical and Management Committee.

The biggest problem facing bus riders is that they need later service, Caria said.

"People can get to their second shift jobs, but they can't come home," he said, adding that if the RTA plan is approved by voters in the May election that problem may change.

Sun Tran runs about 160 buses daily, and more than 54,000 riders hop on each day, Caria said. More and more buses are filled to capacity, and riders are being turned away and are having to wait for the next bus, he said.

With the transit improvements, bus frequency would be added, changing the duration between bus arrivals from 30 minutes to 15 minutes or from 15 minutes to 10 minutes in some areas, Caria said.

Improved weekend service is also in the RTA plan, which would extend the hours from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday and 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday.

Additional express routes, about 100 to 200 additional bus shelters and five new park and ride facilities are also included in the RTA draft.

For Caria, improvements need to be made to keep up with the demand of Pima County residents, he said.

The RTA is projecting a 71-percent increase in transit trips over the next 20 years, the same time allotted for the increased sales tax if the RTA plan is approved.

Without public transit, motorists would spend an additional 1 million hours on the region's streets, according to the RTA.

Daily Sun Tran rider and a senior county appraiser Jim Forbus has computed commuting time for years, and for this avid bus rider the numbers indicated the need to ditch the car keys and start riding the bus.

For more than 12 years, Forbus has been riding Sun Tran to his job downtown. He and about six other colleagues park their cars in Oro Valley and take the 40 minute commute to their offices. It is relaxing and makes sense, Forbus said.

"We have three drivers in my family and two vehicles," he said, adding that his wife and daughter take the cars and he rides the bus.

"No point to having a vehicle just sit there all day," he said. "It works out."

It may not always be the easiest way to get to work. He often relies on colleagues or his wife to pick him up from work if he misses the last bus, but Forbus said it is a lot easier than fighting traffic each day.

"I like it because I don't have to deal with the traffic," he said. "Particularly the going home traffic, where the people are even more insane than they are in the morning."

One area of frustration for Forbus is the lack of bus service into the Northwest, he said.

"Sun Tran has been very remiss in not expanding in the Northwest," he said, adding that service needs to expand farther north into Oro Valley.

Caria agrees with the need to expand service and, if approved, the RTA plan will help Sun Tran do so with most of the improvements put in place right away or within three years, he said.

One such area of improvement is the addition of 38 new low-floor buses, Caria said.

Sun Tran buses generally have a 10- to 12-inch step up. The new low-floor buses eliminate that step and have a ramp that extends down to service wheelchair riders, he said, something that will allow a more efficient boarding.

Tom Bush, citizens advisory committee member and retired director of online services for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, said the low-floor buses will improve safety for disabled riders, like himself, by offering an easier boarding method and improved wheelchair tie-downs, he said.

All of the transit improvements need to be accessible or people will not use them, Bush said.

Part of the RTA plan includes providing smaller circulation buses into Oro Valley, Marana, Sahuarita, Green Valley and the East Side. These buses will serve smaller communities by providing transportation.

Another way the RTA plan is attempting to make the transit service more accessible is with a modern streetcar that would travel from downtown and the University of Arizona to the Arizona Medical Center.

For Citizens Advisory Committee chair Rick Myers, the streetcar is a modern way of addressing riders' needs in a nostalgic way.

And one good thing about the streetcar, Myers said, is "It's a whole lot cheaper than light rail."

Myers, a former IBM vice president, rode a Sun Tran bus for the first time a few weeks ago. He told residents at the Sun City Vistoso public outreach meeting.

"I know I'm going to use it more in the future," he said, adding that more residents need to get out of their cars and into buses.

"Not enough people use transit," Myers said.

Mary Schuh, president of the Pima Association of Taxpayers, does not support the transit improvements and thinks the streetcar is "silly."

She said public transit is a good thing but Tucson is not set up for becoming a mass transit city.

"People in the West have a romance with their automobiles," Schuh said. "You don't want to be trapped somewhere without wheels and have to wait for a bus."

Quinn Simpson agrees. She thinks improvements to the transit system need to be made before residents will lock their cars and hop on the bus.

For more than 20 years, Simpson has been advocating for the conservation in Tucson and thinks that by using less gasoline in SUV's and riding buses residents can improve the environment and the region for future generations.

"People are going to need mass transit," she said. "We need transportation models that are 21st century."

"Do you want to leave a town with nothing but asphalt?" Simpson asked.

"To the degree you impoverish the environment, you impoverish mankind," she said.

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