I hear the cry constantly: “Everything is wrong with Rio Nuevo!” For me, it’s déjà vu all over again.

I lived in Portland during the planning, building and completion of its first light rail lines. For years, all I heard was, “Everything’s wrong with light rail!” Entire downtown streets were torn up, leaving rows of small businesses struggling to survive. In the Portland rain, they looked like your worst vision of a muddy wild west cow town. Businesses went under for lack of cars and foot traffic. Drivers complained bitterly about detours and construction cones and endless delays.

Portlanders grumbled about cost overruns, poor management and city workers leaning on their shovels when there was so much work to be done. Everyone’s patience grew thin. Of course, everyone was right to complain. It was a mess.

Then one day, the first light rail line was done. The trains were running, and the city celebrated. More lines have been built since, connecting city and suburbs into an interwoven community. As a result, new businesses and downtown area condos have blossomed and thrived. The world has beaten a path to Portland’s door to study one of the most successful urban renovations in recent history.

Tucson isn’t Portland, and our Rio Nuevo will have nowhere near the ripple effects of Portland’s light rail. Our mission, our vision and the money we’re spending are all on a smaller scale. But the parallels are obvious. Our goal is a revitalized downtown.

In the meantime, Tucsonans hate their torn-up streets and the ugly holes in the ground that cover entire city blocks, not to mention the endless delay. We have the feeling we’re not getting anywhere. We’re like kids in the back seat of the family car, grumpy and uncomfortable, whining, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

No, we’re not there yet. We’re not even close. And we have no guarantees Rio Nuevo will succeed in revitalizing our downtown, any more than Portland knew light rail was going to be the overwhelming success it’s turned out to be. We got off to costly false starts in the early years of the project. Then, just when plans were in place a few years back to put up residential buildings to increase urban density and attract businesses, the air began leaking out of the housing bubble. Builders and businesses pulled out of deals before the ink was dry. Work continues, slowly.

Right now, Rio Nuevo is at a dangerous crossroads. The Maricopa-based, Republican-controlled state legislature, which has no love for its Democratic-leaning neighbor to the south, would love to kill the entire project. If that’s not possible, they want to keep Rio Nuevo under Maricopa’s thumb.

Worst-case scenario is the 2010 budget that passed the House Appropriations Committee. It cut all the funding out from under Rio Nuevo. The cuts are so drastic, Tucson wouldn’t even be able to repay its bonds. I doubt those cuts will stand.

Next-worst case scenario is the proposal to turn control of the project over to a state board of directors appointed by the governor, the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate.

Imagine a board appointed by the same Tucson-hating Maricopa Republicans who have turned the state’s budget creation process into a combination of Dick Cheney’s super secret, paranoid planning sessions and the Ringling Brothers’ Circus. What a disaster.

Football and baseball stadiums were built in the Phoenix area using the same funding process we’re using for Rio Nuevo. Their new light rail system is up and running and looks to be a success. Now Maricopa wants to take our money away.

I say, let Tucson be Tucson. I like the basic idea of increased downtown housing and business combined with a museum complex. There are never any guarantees, but we deserve the right to give it our best shot.

Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.

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