As the Valley wraps up one 20-year building program and heads into a second
generation of construction, the key feature will be widening and improving
freeways to compete with growth.
Some freeways will be added, but the focus will be on raising the amount of
traffic that existing roads can handle. As unrelenting growth rapidly pushes
out the edges of the metropolitan area, new freeways turn into congested
traffic jams as soon as they are completed.
"That's the challenge that we face," said Doug Nintzel, spokesman
for the Arizona Department of Transportation. "It appears that we'll
always be behind the growth curve in the Valley."
although freeway building in the Valley can be a frustrating game of catch-up,
road builders should be able to avoid the delays and difficulties that bedeviled
the first 20-year freeway program, planners believe, because of hard lessons
learned and experience gained.
With today's complex network of freeways connecting most of the Valley, it may
be hard to recall just how hopeless things appeared in the early 1990s, when it
looked like the freeways would never be built.
Drivers had voted in 1985 for a half-cent sales tax to fund a 20-year
transportation program that included 231 miles of freeways, but 10 years later,
they were still waiting for the cement to flow. Other than a few scant and
scattered miles of new freeway, not much was happening.
Critics were declaring the Proposition 300 freeway plan a grandiose failure,
blaming poor management and overly optimistic funding forecasts. Beleaguered
transportation officials cited an economic downturn that had robbed them of
funds, plus burgeoning land prices for rights of way.
A massive effort in political, financial and construction activity was cranked
up in 1996, so that today, a major portion of the Maricopa County freeway system
envisioned by planners and passed by voters in 1985 has been built or is close
"Don't take what's been done for granted," Nintzel said. "Those
of us who've been in the Valley since the 1970s and '80s have seen what we've
When the ambitious 1985 building plan finally draws to a close, 147 miles of new
freeways will be under our wheels, 84 fewer than planned, and a new 20-year
program will begin under Proposition 400, the 2006-2026 Regional Transportation
Plan passed by voters last year.
The end of the 1985 construction program will actually come in 2007, about two
years late, with the planned completion of the Santan and Red Mountain segments
of Loop 202 in the East Valley.
At that point, say officials at ADOT and the Maricopa County Association of
Governments, the regional planning body, there will be a seamless transition to
the new plan, which includes some of the unbuilt highways originally in the old
"I think with the completion of Red Mountain, there might be a little
ceremony that will close the books on Proposition 300," said Eric Anderson,
MAG transportation director. "Then we'll take a deep breath and go
Proposition 400 allots $5.9 billion for freeway projects, about 57 percent of
the total tax package. The money starts flowing in March."You shall see a
lot of activity after that," said Paul Ward, MAG transportation planner.
"This (funding) has provided us with a lot of certainty for what we'll be
The new freeways and improvements should provide some relief for commuters,
Nintzel said, but nobody expects the freeway construction to do away with
"Obviously, we're going to grow in the number of vehicles, so we have to
manage that," Nintzel said. "There's just so much you can do with
One of the important aspects of Proposition 400, he added, is that it includes
important mass-transit components that could make a dent in congestion.
"We're going to have to see what happens with things such as adjusted work
schedules, carpooling and transit in order to create situations where there are
fewer vehicles on the freeways at any given time," he said.
The Proposition 400 plan does address some of the Valley's most notorious
bottlenecks, such as the infamous Broadway Curve on Interstate 10 in Tempe and
the increasingly backed-up lanes of Interstate 17 in north Phoenix. More lanes
will be added to those stretches.
The next 20-year round of construction will complete nearly all of the original
freeway map of 1985, including Loop 303 in the West Valley and the South
Mountain segment of Loop 202, which will provide a Phoenix-bypass route to the
south for I-10.
The first five years of construction, called Phase 1, will begin with a small
step, construction of an I-10 interchange at Bullard Road in west Phoenix that
should be completed in 2007. A new interchange for Bethany Home Road on the Agua
Fria Freeway section of Loop 101 should follow shortly thereafter.
After that, road builders will set their sites on widening and adding
high-occupancy vehicle lanes to the Pima Freeway segment of Loop 101, U.S. 60 in
the East Valley, and I-17 from Loop 101 to Carefree Highway.
HOV lanes will be added to Arizona 51 from Shea Boulevard to Loop 101 and on the
Red Mountain segment of Loop 202 from Loop 101 to Gilbert Road, and on I-10
south of Loop 202 to Riggs Road. Lanes will be added to I-10 in the West Valley,
and to Loop 202 from Arizona 51 to Loop 101.
"There are $2.8 billion in (freeway) projects for the first five
years," Anderson said. "That's a record."
Drivers will experience some inconvenience because of construction, Nintzel
said, though it should be tolerable because much of the roadwork will be
performed in the medians and on the shoulders of the freeways.
Despite the ambitious schedule, MAG and ADOT should be able to cope with the
construction demands, Anderson said. Unlike the early years of the first freeway
program, the agencies are now equipped with the know-how to make it all come
"ADOT had very limited experience in building urban freeways,"
Anderson said. "I think that many of the challenges we had are understood a
"We know a lot more and have a more realistic view of what it takes to
build in the urban environment."