FLORENCE — In a discussion of transportation needs, the words “state funding” don’t come up often enough, and there’s a good reason for that, attendees at a Pinal Partnership breakfast were told Friday.
“State funding lacks significantly in the state of Arizona for transportation issues,” Scott Higginson, executive director of the Interstate 11 Coalition, said. Transportation dollars come from gas taxes, which haven’t been raised in 28 years while construction costs have gone steadily upward, he said.
“We’re one of the very, very, very few states left in the country that hasn’t raised its gas taxes,” Higginson continued. But now there is a “significant effort” in the Legislature this year to raise the gas tax. “I would encourage every single person in this room, as you meet with your state elected officials, to tell them you support raising the gas tax for transportation.”
An alternative is to allow counties to raise the gas tax locally for their own needs. “That’s the way Nevada built Interstate 11,” Higginson said.
“We need more funding for transportation in this state, and we need it desperately. It’s only going to happen when we have a governor and a Legislature who are willing to raise the gas tax,” Higginson said.
Gov. Doug Ducey may have something to say on the subject when he speaks to Pinal Partnership on Feb. 25 at Robson Ranch.
Quinn Quihui Castro, a transportation engineer at the Maricopa Association of Governments regional planning agency, noted a long stretch of I-10, mostly within the Gila River Indian Community in Pinal County, remains only two lanes in each direction.
“We are working to determine alternatives at this time to potentially widen this corridor and have three lanes in each direction,” she said. MAG has hired a consultant to lead the process, which can be seen at http://i10wildhorsepasscorridor.com.
“We’d like to have an environmental document late this year or early next year. Right now, we are looking at alternatives for what a widening would look like,” Castro said. It could also include an extension of the HOV lanes in Phoenix down to Riggs Road.
The highway “was originally constructed in the ‘60s, so there are some geometrics that need to be improved, there are some traffic interchanges that are not up to current standards, as well as bridges that are — I don’t want to say in a state of disrepair, but — are at the end of their useful life,” Castro said. The separate effort to improve I-10 bridges can be found at http://i10bridgeproject.com.
But the state isn’t waiting for the full MAG study and hopes to begin construction of new $78 million I-10 bridges over the Gila River in the summer of 2021, Castro said.
Ducey said in his State of the State address on Jan. 13, “Our budget puts the pedal to the metal, with construction of a new six-lane bridge over the Gila River. This replaces a 56-year-old bridge; 62,000 people drive over it every day. That’s 23 million a year. So let’s break ground ASAP.”
Even though funding remains in limbo, Pinal County and its cities and towns are working on needs identified by the county’s Regional Transportation Authority, according to Andy Smith, general manager of the Pinal RTA and deputy director of Pinal County Public Works.
The county, Maricopa and Casa Grande have already started projects identified in the first five years of the RTA, with hopes they will eventually be reimbursed by the RTA. One of the RTA’s projects is a future east-west corridor from Maricopa north of Casa Grande to I-10. The RTA also is working on public transit, “park-and-rides, and that kind of thing,” Smith told the Pinal Partnership meeting.
He added that Board of Supervisors Chairman Anthony Smith, R-Maricopa, recently went to the Legislature to pitch a plan for improvements to State Route 347. The RTA is also working with cities and towns “to make sure everybody is kind-of on board” with the state’s preferred corridor for the future north-south freeway west of Florence, which was announced last year.
About $29 million in revenues from the voter-approved excise tax to fund the RTA have been held in escrow because of a court challenge. Although the Arizona Court of Appeals has just ruled 3-0 in the county’s favor, the RTA isn’t spending the money yet.
Smith said there’s a 15-day window, which ends Jan. 30, in which the plaintiff, the Goldwater Institute, can ask for a review of the decision. Meanwhile, the deadline to appeal to the state Supreme Court ends Feb. 16.
If Goldwater chooses to appeal, the Supreme Court has 30 days to decide if it wants to hear the case. If it does, oral arguments are scheduled “and we’re looking at another three to eight months,” Smith said.
Interstate 11 has been in a “Tier 1” environmental analysis for approximately three years, and there’s a recommended alternative between Wickenburg and Mexico, Higginson said. The route from Wickenburg to Las Vegas was determined by Congress, which passed a bill 10 years ago declaring U.S. 93 to be the route.
The southern half, meanwhile, is a 2,000-foot-wide corridor, which will eventually be narrowed to a 300- to 400-foot-wide alignment. This route was chosen last year out of about a dozen alternatives.
There will be another update to the route in the fall of this year. It won’t be built all at once, but in individual segments where there’s a logical terminus, Higginson said. A route that Pinal County had previously identified for a future “West Pinal Freeway” ended up being the one chosen for I-11.
“Today you could call it the recommended alternative … because it’s gone through the public hearing process,” Higginson said.