Ducey OKs $400M for I-10 widening - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Ducey OKs $400M for I-10 widening

May 10th, 2022 SanTan Sun News
Ducey OKs $400M for I-10 widening

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

Relief may finally be on the way for Chandler motorists who get snarled in traffic in the corridor between the state’s two largest cities.

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 287 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 State of the State speech, signed the measure Wednesday,

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 2023,  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.

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 it 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 has been an issue.

Rep. 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 place 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.

On its website, ADOT said it is working with the Gila River Indian Community to define the recommended bridge layout and estimated costs to replace the I-10 bridges over the Gila River. ADOT states it has allocated $83 million for the bridge replacement project in Fiscal Year 2023, adding, “The funding amount is contingent on market conditions and final design.”

“Once an agreement with the Gila River Indian Community is finalized, ADOT is committed to identifying and pursuing all possible funding options, including federal funding options, for improving the I-10 bridges over the Gila River,” the agency website states, adding that it must complete engineering and environmental-impact studies before it can be eligible for federal aid.

The I-10 bridges over the Gila River were constructed in 1964 with a functional lifespan of 50 to 75 years, ADOT states.

“Since being constructed, they have been impacted twice by major flood events in the Gila River,” the agency states.

“In 1983, flood waters washed over I-10, resulting in the closure of I-10 for several weeks for roadway and bridge repairs. It is estimated that the 1983 event’s river flow was three times greater than the flow for which the bridges were designed,” it explains.

“Ten years later, another flood event resulted in flood waters rising within inches of the bridge girders, causing concern that floating debris could damage the bridge structures and force another closure of I-10. In 1994, ADOT made modifications along and within the river near the bridges to help protect them from future flooding events.”

ADOT says that though it “has continuously repaired, reinforced and maintained the bridge structures since they were built, “as a bridge ages, the routine maintenance becomes progressively more expensive. Recent inspections indicate that expensive deck and foundation repairs are necessary in the near future if the existing bridges are to remain in place.”

It also said the two recent flooding events, one for which covered the highway, indicate that “the more cost-effective, long-term solution may be to design and construct new bridges utilizing current design standards and methods, enabling the bridges to withstand larger flood events.

“This is especially critical, as another major flood event along the Gila River forcing an I-10 closure would significantly impact the region’s mobility and emergency response times, and would have a noticeable, negative impact on the local and state economy,” it says. “Newly designed bridges could also include wider shoulders, which would improve safety for everyone who travels over them.

“As the region continues to grow, the reliability, safety and structural integrity of the bridges over the Gila River are increasingly critical to travelers.”

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 survey 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 one part of this artery there is a choke point that impacts safety and needs our investment and out attention.”

He acknowledged there are a lot of priorities and demands for state funds, particular 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 Co. 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.