041218 dust I-10

Westbound traffic is at a standstill due to blowing dust Thursday on Interstate 10 north of Cottonwood Lane.

Last Saturday my wife and I journeyed down to Tucson to watch the University of Arizona basketball team take on Colorado in an early afternoon game.

During the second half I received a text alert on my phone that Interstate 10 had been closed at Marana due to “crashes.”

I failed to notice the plural and figured that by the time the game was over and my wife and I had caught an early dinner with my brother and his wife, the freeway would be cleaned up, and it would be smooth driving back to Casa Grande.

Boy, was I wrong.

When I checked road conditions before heading home, I noticed the freeway was still closed at Tangerine Road. But with my supposed knowledge acquired from being a southern Arizona native, I believed I knew a back road route around the accident that could get me back on the freeway in a jiffy.

I exited the freeway at Twin Peaks Road and then took back roads through Marana to Pinal Airpark Road, where I believed I could return to I-10 at this little used interchange.

I was so proud of myself when I passed Marana Road and saw the traffic backed up, thinking “suckers,” as I knew my way around.

Well, there was one thing I didn’t count on — two accidents. And the other was at the Pinal Airpark exit, so that interchange was also closed. I realized my error when I ran into the cars backed up miles away from the interchange.

I could have taken Silverbell Road, which runs through Ironwood Forest National Monument and then made it back to the Red Rock interchange, but that is a dirt road and a considerable trek. So I sheepishly drove back to Marana Road and took my place in line as traffic was being diverted under I-10 to the frontage road heading up toward Picacho Peak.

Marana Police were directing traffic and surprisingly it went pretty smooth as they alternated letting traffic through from three different directions. The frontage road had been blocked off and traffic used both lanes heading north before converging into one land at Red Rock to re-enter the freeway.

Three hours later we got home. But we were the lucky ones. In talking to co-workers and friends who also got stuck in the jam, their trip was five hours or more.

Interstate 10 is the fourth-longest Interstate in the United States and this time of year it is one of the busiest. It stretches from the Pacific Coast to Jacksonville, Florida, a stretch of 2,460.3 miles.

Because it is the southern-most freeway across the nation, it gets busy during the winter with commercial and personal traffic trying to avoid inclement weather along the more northern cross-country routes.

The Tucson-Phoenix corridor through Pinal County can be especially busy with the traffic converging from Interstate 8.

Every year it seems like I-10 in Pinal gets shut down two or three times due to an accident or weather and traffic is diverted to alternate routes.

In Houston, there is a 23-mile stretch of I-10 that is actually 26 lanes in certain parts. When an accident occurs there, they can close three to four lanes and traffic doesn’t have to exit the freeway.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety said the two collisions last Saturday occurred 30 minutes apart, so one probably contributed to the other as traffic started to back up.

DPS says the decision to close a freeway is made on the scene by the commanding trooper, whether it’s a sergeant or captain.

Often an alternate route is established. And that decision is made by the Arizona Department of Transportation. Then local law enforcement is notified to direct traffic in and around their communities.

It really is a team project with a plan. Even if things look chaotic, if there are officers on scene directing traffic, then you know there is a process being followed.

Getting off the freeway ahead of the closure was a wise choice. But if I had just gotten in line at Marana Road in the first place, instead of trying to work my way around, I probably would have saved at least 30 minutes.

Those who got stuck on the freeway between exits were the unlucky ones. They had to wait until the entire freeway was re-opened.

When driving on I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix, there are two essential items you should have in your car — a full water bottle and an empty glass pickle jar. Both items could be needed if you get stuck in a lengthy closure and traffic jam.

If you don’t know what the pickle jar is for, ask a trucker.

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Andy Howell can be contacted at ahowell@pinalcentral.com.

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