By Paul Maryniak

East Valley motorists in the coming years will reap a significant part of a billion-dollar windfall that will jump-start upgrades on several key highways in the region.

That forecast to the Chandler Chamber of Commerce came recently from Bob Hazlett, senior engineering manager for the Maricopa Association of Governments, the principal highway planning agency in the Valley.

“If you haven’t seen a construction cone lately, you’re going to be seeing a lot of construction cones soon, because this is a pretty big shot in the arm,” Hazlett told a group of business executives and Chandler City Council members.

“We’re very excited about seeing these projects open up,” he added. “You’re going to be seeing projects in areas you can’t really get to, but then at the same time, ones that will improve vital transportation routes so people can get back and forth to their jobs, their recreation, as well as to their schools.”

Some major projects include:
• Extending the third and HOV lanes on U.S. 60 to Apache Junction;
• Widening, by one lane in each direction, the Loop 101 Price Freeway between the U.S. 60 and Santan Freeway;
• Widening portions of the Loop 202 Santan and Red Mountain freeways;
• Adding an interchange at the Santan Freeway and Lindsay Road;
• Extending State Route 24 from Ellsworth Road to Ironwood Road;
• Widening I-10 around the Broadway Curve and making other improvements along I-10 between Pecos Road and the I-17 split.

The timetable for these and nine other projects was accelerated – and may be moved up again next month – as a result of an unexpected surplus that gave MAG an extra $1.8 billion for projects over the next 10 years for a total $5.02 billion.

Of that, $1.77 billion will go to the South Mountain Freeway, the most expensive highway project Arizona has ever undertaken.

Another $1.25 billion is funding the accelerated projects in the East Valley and other parts of the metropolitan area, particularly the West Valley.

Hazlett said projections made in 2012 were off by $1.8 billion. That’s partially because revenue from taxes, mainly the levy on gasoline, turned out 55 percent over the original estimate.

Additionally, he said, savings have been achieved by the Arizona Department of Transportation’s adoption of a “cost-risk analysis” of proposed projects that helps highway planners get a better idea of the most effective approaches to problem areas.

Some Southeast Valley upgrades – primarily the additional lanes on the Price Freeway and the Lindsay Road interchange on the Santan – are directly in response to economic developments.

Hazlett said various economic development projects in Chandler warrant the Price Freeway upgrade, while the Lindsay Road interchange at the Santan Freeway is in response to the massive Rivulon mixed-use development in Gilbert.

For Southeast Valley motorists, the improvements will sweep across the region from I-10 and into western Pinal County.

For example, Hazlett noted that State Route 24 “has been on the books for some time.”

While the first mile of the highway has been opened between the Loop 202 and Ellsworth Road, it will be extended to Ironwood to “help folks in Queen Creek and San Tan Valley, to give them an easier way to get to the freeway system.”

Stating that project “will start fairly soon,” Hazlett said the extension for now “won’t have interchanges, but there will be some traffic signals.”

Additionally, the Santan Freeway will be widened by a lane in each direction between State Route 24 and Gilbert Road.

Also, the “runout lanes” from Price Freeway eastbound will be extended to Arizona Avenue.

On the other hand, motorists farther south in San Tan Valley will have to wait for a long-discussed freeway between Eloy and the U.S. 60 in Apache Junction.

Hazlett said suggestions to make that proposed freeway a toll road have been shelved.

“It would cost about $20 a day in tolls,” he said, adding that ongoing “fiscal constraints” have delayed even identifying a complete right-of-way.

Motorists in the eastern third of Maricopa County will benefit from the extension of the HOV lane and the addition of a third on U.S. 60 between Crismon and Meridian roads.

On the Red Mountain Freeway, there are also plans to extend the third lane in each direction between Broadway Road and the U.S. 60.

By far the most ambitious project, however, involves the Broadway Curve and the entire length of I-10 between Pecos Road and the I-17 split – a segment that MAG and the Arizona Department of Transportation call “The Spine” because it handles 40 percent of all Valley traffic daily.

It could also be called “the headache” by East Valley commuters whose commute to downtown Phoenix involves I-10 from the U.S. 60 or the Santan Freeway.

At one time not too long ago, there had been plans to expand I-10 to 25 lanes and I-17 to 16 around the Broadway Curve, Hazlett said.

“As you can imagine, if we widened it that much, we’d be wiping out a lot of homes and a lot of businesses,” he added. “We started asking, do we really need that capacity?”

The result of that question is a “more holistic, comprehensive look” at I-10 that will involve a few extra lanes, but a relocation of interchanges connecting the U.S. 60 and State Route 143 so that it can eliminate the dangerous cross-overs that traffic now makes in that area.

Hazlett also said MAG is making “a big investment” in bike and pedestrian bridges over I-10 because bicyclists and walkers complained about how hard it is to get to the other side of the freeway no matter which way they’re walking.

Another component of the effort to ease traffic on the Broadway Curve is the South Mountain Freeway, a 22-mile corridor that will provide a detour for traffic around downtown Phoenix between 59th Avenue and the Chandler Interchange.

Meanwhile, former Chandler City councilman Jack Sellers, now a member of the state Transportation Board, told the group that widening I-10 between Chandler and Tucson remains a high priority.

But a critical 10-mile segment passes over the Gila River Indian Community and tribal leaders still have not signed off on a plan.

Sellers said that the state long ago made a deal with the Gila Community not to undertake an I-10 expansion without its approval.

“That is a priority we are working through,” he said.