Freeway routes

The right line shows the corridor supported by Florence, Pinal County and other area cities and towns. The left line shows a “West Alternative” for a future north-south freeway.

FLORENCE — The town’s official comments on the future north-south freeway will recommend the Hunt Highway exit be moved north approximately a half mile to Merrill Ranch Parkway, which would create the potential for another exit more convenient to downtown Florence.

The state’s preferred corridor for the future freeway includes exits on Arizona 287, Hunt Highway and Arizona Farms Road. But Anthem developers have recommended to the town that an exit on Merrill Ranch Parkway would do more to stimulate economic development, Town Manager Brent Billingsley told the Town Council on Monday.

The council held a work session to discuss the town’s official comments on the freeway’s draft environmental document, due next week to the Arizona Department of Transportation. Actual construction of the freeway could be 20 or more years away.

Another advantage of a Merrill Ranch Parkway exit is that it would create the minimum 2 miles preferred between exits for a future exit to an extended West Butte Avenue or future “river road” to downtown Florence, Billingsley said. It would also eliminate impacts to Copper Basin Railroad, according to the town’s draft comments to ADOT.

This is just one of 16 general comments, plus 25 technical comments, the town plans to submit. Florence, Pinal County and other area cities and towns formally endorsed a corridor that veers east to pass near downtown Florence. But the state released a preferred corridor last month that runs west of Poston Butte and cuts through an undeveloped portion of Anthem.

Councilwoman Michelle Cordes said the town’s first priority should be to eliminate the “West Alternative” corridor that is west of the state’s preferred corridor and even farther away from Florence. “Why is it on here (ADOT maps) and who are the players forcing it?” she asked.

Billingsley said the four southern Arizona Indian nations support the western corridor. Since none of the tribes would be directly affected by other potential alignments, town representatives assume their preference relates to protection of cultural and archaeological resources. However, Billingsley noted that this statement isn’t made in the cultural section of the draft environmental document, but in the transportation planning sections.

The western corridor has the advantages of the tribes’ support and the fastest travel time, but Florence town staff are waging “all-out war” against it, Billingsley said. Cordes said she didn’t want to see Florence lose track of the West Alternative, as it could reemerge as the new preferred alternative, “and we get completely left out.”

Mayor Tara Walter said she’d like for Billingsley to argue to the state the pros and cons of the state’s preferred corridor, and the corridor that veers closer to downtown Florence.

Councilwoman Karen Wall said she agreed with Cordes and Walter, and was also “particularly dismayed” that Florence wasn’t considered a participating agency in the freeway study. Billingsley said Florence contributed and commented throughout the study and should be acknowledged as a participating agency.

Wall further noted the state may not have chosen the locally preferred route because it makes “a major bend” away from its generally vertical path and is even farther away from the western alternative.

Other comments the town plans to submit to ADOT include:

  • The Florence Anthem hospital is open again and should be acknowledged.
  • The Casa Grande Ruins National Monument expansion in Coolidge should be included and addressed.
  • There is no discussion of ADOT’s plans to replace the bridge on State Route 79 over the Gila River, perhaps in 2020.
  • The resolutions from Florence, Pinal County, Eloy, Coolidge, Queen Creek, Apache Junction and Central Arizona Governments supporting a preferred corridor “should be acknowledged and discussed.” This locally supported corridor, also part of Pinal County’s half-cent excise tax election, was not among the alternatives considered in the state’s report.
  • Pinal County’s excise tax, now held up by a court challenge, should be addressed in more detail, along with plans to locally fund the initial phases of the north-south freeway. “Our hard work and willingness to pay for early phases” of the freeway should be acknowledged, Billingsley told the council.
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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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