PHOENIX — Relief may finally be on the way for motorists who get snarled in traffic in the corridor between the state’s two largest cities.
But not just yet.
The state House on Monday gave final approval to spending $400 million to widen an approximately 25-mile stretch of Interstate 10 between Queen Creek Road on the edge of Chandler to State Route 387 outside of Casa Grande to three lanes in each direction. That matches what already exists on either side of the segment.
The Senate already has given its blessing and Gov. Doug Ducey, who asked for the funding in his January State of the State speech, is poised to sign it.
Doug Nick, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said that $400 million won’t complete the job. But he said that commitment will qualify Arizona to apply for a share of the $5 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that is set aside for highway improvement projects. That could add another $300 million.
And Nick said the agency already has $260 million set aside to get the work started, bringing the entire project cost to about $1 billion.
That start, which could begin as early as this coming year, will be on the pair of quarter-mile two-lane bridges over the Gila River. From there, he said, construction will start in 2024 to the north and south until the entire stretch is upgraded to three lanes.
Anticipated completion is set for 2026.
Rep. Teresa Martinez, R-Casa Grande, told PinalCentral the passing of SB 1239 is a significant decision for the Pinal County region.
“I’m absolutely thrilled the bill was passed,” she said. “At the moment the House budget is nowhere to being passed, yet we were able to fish out this major appropriation bill worth $400 million that had been sitting on the sidelines and get it passed.”
Martinez said the passing of the legislation had bipartisan support and that there was a mood in the Legislature that the widening of I-10 was long overdue.
“There was great bipartisan support today, all of us in the Legislature know just how vital the I-10 is to our local economies and communities,” Martinez said. “What we need to do now is to apply for federal funding and we need to apply before the May 13 deadline. We are looking at $300 million, which combined with the $400 million from the state’s side will go a long way in completing the majority at once. The bottom line is the I-10 will be widened and you will see it very soon.”
Nick said that $1 billion figure was crafted to account for inflation. He acknowledged, though, that the current unusually high increase in year-to-year costs for everything could complicate matters if that does not abate.
The state has been widening sections of the interstate, which stretches from Santa Monica, California, to Jacksonville, Florida, for years. But the last section between Phoenix and Tucson has been an issue.
Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, who sponsored the $400 million appropriation, said some of that had to do with the fact that the stretch runs through the Gila River Indian Community.
“Their opposition mainly stemmed from they felt like they didn’t have a seat at the table originally when (the highway) was placed through the reservation,’’ he said. “And they hadn’t felt like an equal partner throughout that process.’’
Shope said that has changed with the participation of GRIC Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis.
Despite the lopsided votes — 27-1 in the Senate and 55-1 in the House — not everyone is convinced it’s a good idea to take money from the same pot that is used to fund the rest of state government.
The generally established practice involves ADOT borrowing money for projects, pledging future gasoline tax revenues and vehicle registration fees and leaving the dollars collected from state income, sales and other taxes untouched. Tapping the general fund for $400 million jump-starts this specific project without affecting other road construction and repair priorities.
Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, cast the lone dissenting vote in the Senate. It starts, she said, with the process.
She said that if the state has a fixed amount of money to spend in the general fund, then all priorities should be considered — and compete — for those funds at the same time. Ugenti-Rita said there should not be special carve-outs.
Beyond that, she said there may be better ways of spending that much money.
“I want $400 million in tax cuts,’’ Ugenti-Rita said.
Shope acknowledged that this plan to use general fund tax collection dollars to put in a third lane in each direction is a departure from the normal process of borrowing money for new construction. But he said this isn’t just any old road project.
“The Casa Grande Chamber of Commerce did a survey of residents,’’ Shope said. “And, of those who were gainfully employed, around 60% of them traveled to Phoenix for work.’’
That, he said, is far different than a project like widening I-17 north of Anthem.
“That’s a lot of recreational traffic,’’ Shope said. “This is a lot of commerce traffic just trying to do their daily jobs.’’
And he said that I-10 becomes the only east-west highway that is pretty much guaranteed to be open and snow-free all winter, though Shope acknowledged there are stretches in Cochise County that do sometimes get snow.
Support was bipartisan.
“The I-10 is a vital artery that supports our entire state economy,’’ said House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen.
“All kinds of commerce, agriculture, manufacturing, dry goods, even state legislators from Tucson all rely on the I-10 to connect our state’s two largest metropolitan areas,’’ Bolding continued. “But in one part of this artery there is a choke point that impacts safety and needs our investment and our attention.’’
He acknowledged there are a lot of priorities and demands for state funds, particularly for education.
“But we also know infrastructure is where our attention is needed.’’
Ducey press aide C.J. Karamargin said the presence of I-10 — and one where traffic flows easily — is critical to the state’s economy.
“We have businesses, large companies, manufacturing companies that are choosing Arizona because of our proximity to interstate highways,’’ he said. For example, he said Nikola Motor Company, which rolled its first big rig trucks off the line last month, chose Coolidge because of freeway access.
Rep. Richard Andrade, D-Glendale, also voted for the plan. But he told colleagues they should keep in mind there are other priorities.
“We also have many Arizona roads and highways that need to be improved,’’ he said. And Andrade said he is counting on lawmakers making further investments as the full budget is negotiated.
Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, pointed out for the Republican-controlled House that a big chunk of the needed dollars are coming from Washington.
“I’d also like to take this time to say ‘thanks Joe Biden as president for your leadership in recognizing the importance of investing in infrastructure,’’’ she added, also thanking the Democrat-controlled Congress that approved the plan.