By Jim Walsh
Tribune Staff Writer

 

A rebound in the economy eventually will help East Valley commuters avoid traffic congestion, with higher sales tax revenues paying for a three-mile expansion of State Route 24, also known as the Gateway Freeway, near Phoenix Mesa Gateway Airport.

Now little more than a one-mile interchange off the Loop 202, State Route 24 would allow Mesa to build a new terminal on the east side of the airport; provide a faster route for residents of Eastmark, an upscale master-planned community on the former site of the General Motors Proving Grounds; and give beleaguered Queen Creek and San Tan Valley drivers much better access to larger Valley cities.

Gilbert officials also are reviewing a decade-old transportation plan to see if the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes originally envisioned would still be helpful, or if other improvements might be more effective in reducing congestion or improving safety.

These long-term improvements are made possible by a $1.2 billion windfall in additional sales tax revenues collected through Proposition 400 and some cost savings from favorable bids on contracts. Revenues had dropped for nine straight years because of the Great Recession, forcing regional planning officials to postpone several roadway projects.

But now, with revenues rising for the first time in nearly a decade, improvements postponed during the recession are being restored to Maricopa County’s Transportation Plan through the Maricopa Association of Governments, the county’s regional planning agency.

One major East Valley project not covered but in the MAG plan is the proposed new Lindsay Road interchange. The project is about halfway through its planning process and the town is currently in a public comment period, said Leah Hubbard Rhineheimer, assistant to the town manager. A final draft report is scheduled for 2017, which would be followed by a design project and a decision by the Gilbert Town Council on how to fund the intersection.

She said growth in southeast Gilbert has made the Lindsay Road interchange necessary to relieve current and future traffic congestion.

“With the quadrupling in population over the past two decades, this area has emerged as one of the key employment and economic development corridors for Gilbert. This has elevated the need for traffic improvements that will get Gilbert residents to and from their home and work as efficiently as possible,” Hubbard Rhineheimer wrote in an email.

Plans for the Gateway Freeway are at a more advanced stage. The Arizona State Department of Transportation completed a corridor study in March 2006. Mesa completed the interchange off the Loop 202 in 2014, but the rest of the freeway has only existed in planning documents. It would generally head southeast from the Loop 202 near Ellsworth Road and then turn east along Frye Road until it reaches Ironwood near the Pinal County line.

Although there is still an issue of setting priorities for construction of new facilities or improvements, the news is so promising that transportation planners think they probably would have enough money to make improvements in both the East and West Valley cities, largely setting aside the decades-old rivalry over where sports stadiums, freeways and other public facilities are built.

“This is not a situation where communities are pitted against each other,” said Mesa Mayor John Giles, chairman of MAG’s transportation policy committee. “We don’t have to worry about any regional conflicts here. There’s enough money to do these projects.”

Although the Gateway Freeway will unlock the development of southeast Mesa, the biggest winners might be residents of Queen Creek and San Tan Valley, who find themselves stuck in gridlock during the work week, with local roads overwhelmed by high traffic volumes.

Among the most noteworthy West Valley projects is the planning and construction of a new freeway, State Route 30, which would help relieve the heavy traffic congestion along Interstate 10 through west Phoenix, Avondale and Goodyear.

State Route 30 would run parallel to I-10 about three miles south of the present freeway. The Arizona Department of Transportation is studying such issues as whether it would be feasible to make State Route 30 a toll road to accelerate its construction, said Steve Elliot, an ADOT spokesman.

However, commuters stuck in traffic somewhere along Ellsworth Road, or on Interstate 10 while driving to Gila River Arena, should not expect new freeways anytime soon. The catch is the timing of when the money is expected to become available—sometime after 2020—and which project gets top priority.

Giles said Mesa has a history of accelerating such vital projects as State Route 24 by selling bonds, backed by the promised state money, years earlier. It is a funding mechanism Mesa has used in the past on the Loop 202 and Metro light rail.

“Once we get a lock on the money, we find creative ways to accelerate projects,” Giles said. “Mesa has a history of doing this. It typically results in significant cost savings.”

One major advantage in Mesa’s favor on the prioritization is that the federally required Environmental Impact Statement on State Route 24 has been completed, while that process still needs to be completed on State Route 30, he said.

“We’re kind of a shovel-ready project. We have been waiting for the green light for a while,” Giles said.

Eric Anderson, MAG’s transportation director, said the $1.2 billion is expected to become available in 2021 to 2024. In the meantime, MAG is reconsidering projects that previously were postponed by a lack of funding, adding them back into the county’s Regional Transportation Plan and prioritizing the projects.

He said the money is not enough to complete all of the projects, so they will be built in increments when the money is available, not unlike the construction of other freeways.

Anderson said the theory is that even an interim road, one that will need expansion later, is better than no road.

Anderson projects that it would cost about $400 million to buy right of way for State Route 30, but he said one big hurdle is the lack of environmental clearance. That process is expected to take two to three years.

Almost any road would help Queen Creek, which has a population of about 34,000, while unincorporated areas of San Tan Valley have an estimated population of about 70,000 to 90,000.

It all adds up to a traffic nightmare, Anderson said, making State Route 24 a vital project for southeastern Maricopa County and Pinal County.

“I think it certainly would help. There is no way out of the area,” Anderson said. “There are not enough roads, and a lot of people are living there. They need to create more jobs there.”

Queen Creek Mayor Gail Barney said the expanse of Phoenix Mesa Gateway Airport and the former GM Proving Ground has limited the options for building additional roads that would provide better access for Queen Creek residents to the rest of the East Valley.

State Route 24 “will be an economic boon to the East Valley and a boon to the airport. It will open up another way for people to get in and out” of Queen Creek, Barney said.

He said Queen Creek faces some issues in preparing local roads that would connect with State Route 24. The town’s limits end about 1½ miles south of the freeway alignment. Queen Creek will have to work with Mesa on improvements to Signal Butte Road and Pinal County on improvements to Ironwood.

Barney said it would be very helpful for Queen Creek to have an interchange at Signal Butte, but the location of interchanges is still under review.

Elliott, the ADOT spokesman, said the agency is studying the possibility of full interchanges on at Ellsworth, Williams Field Road, Signal Butte and Meridian. Bridges over the freeway are under consideration at Crismon and Mountain.

– Reach Jim Walsh at 480-898-5639 or at jwalsh@timespublications.com.

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