Alvernon Street, a major north-south arterial, was paved in a big hurry a few years ago, without storm drains, curbs or gutters. When it rains, the street becomes a river, and University of Arizona students go water skiing on it.
However, Alvernon Street is in better shape than 44 other miles of Tucson streets. They are still unpaved.
The city's problem, according to council member Tom Volgy, is that "we don't have an infrastructure, and it's more expensive to build it for those who are coming here than it is to repair it if you've already got one."
"Our street situation is such," city manager Joel Valdez said, "that the needs far outstrip the money . . . . Us guys in western cities -- Albuquerque, San Diego, San Jose -- are faced with the same thing, the growth occurring outside the core has taxed our ability to keep up."
It is difficult to feel sorry for Tucson. The sun always seems to be shining, the night air is crisp and clear, the Mexican food is outstanding and the mountainous desert setting is gorgeous. There are few bridges to fall down, and it does not freeze in the winter, saving pavement from the freeze-thaw cycle that creates potholes.
But Tucson's population jumped from 279,000 to 350,000 in the last 10 years and continues to grow by 3 to 4 percent a year. The kind of attractive, high-technology industry sought by every locality moves to Tucson; IBM opened a big operation here in 1978.
So streets, arterials and expressways, the transit system and the water supply--especially the water supply -- arrive too late with too little, no matter how fast builders build.
"Without water I don't need to worry about streets, houses or anything else," Valdez said. For years, Tucson has pumped its supply from deep wells, which will not be adequate much longer.
Tucson's future, and that of Phoenix, 115 miles to the northwest, rests on getting water from the Central Arizona Project, an enormous aqueduct expected to bring part of the Colorado River to Tucson by 1990 at a cost of about $2.5 billion. That date assumes that the construction schedule and congressional appropriations will continue, now that most of the legal wrangles have been worked out with Indian tribes.
Meanwhile, Tucson copes. Major water conservation measures have reduced peak demand on the system from 151 million gallons in 1976 to 114 million gallons in 1980. Leaky plumbing in the old center city has been replaced, and city golf courses are watered with treated sewage effluent.
Tucson has decided not to build more than its two interstate freeways but is nearing completion of ambitious plans for $300 million in parkways. "We're trying to figure out where to put the Mile-Away Parkway," city transportation director Hurvie Davis said. "Everybody wants it, a mile away from their house."
The transit system, all 159 buses of it, sparkles. Tucson's large elderly population has turned into a transit lobby so effective that a team of mechanics at the bus garage is responsible only for making sure the buses' air conditioning works.
Tucson's goals are to increase from 2.5 to 6 percent the number of trips made on transit instead of in automobiles. "That percentage is deceiving," Volgy said. "Close to 30 percent of the people who work downtown come by bus. We have to have a good bus system."
All of Tucson's grand plans, however, depend on continued revenue -- federal, state and local. Unlike most cities in the northeast, Tucson has expanded its city limits and retained its tax base by annexing the suburbs, but that has brought new problems. County standards for basic services are generally less rigid than those of the city, and annexed residents expect city services.
"Our problems are really more political than they are financial right now," Valdez said. "But they could become more financial if the Proposition 13 [tax-cutting] mentality ties our hands." In recently pushing additional revenue toward Tucson and Phoenix, the state legislature reduced the two cities' flexibility in reprogramming funds.
The other concern is the federal share. The Central Arizona Project and parkway programs anticipate a majority federal contribution. If revenue sharing is cut or transit assistance that pays 20 percent of the Tucson transit operating budget is cut, something must give.
"Now we have the Reagan folks, who think it's a local problem," Volgy said. "National patterns of migration are not a local problem. You don't desert Detroit, but you also don't refuse to help all the newcomers in Tucson."