The proposed Williams Gateway Freeway may fall victim to the needs of Arizona's cash-strapped lawmakers.
Soon, perhaps in today's early-morning hours, the Legislature is expected to take back $20.4 million already designated for designing what will be state Route 802. The money - a fraction of $580 million at risk of being "swept" from various special funds - then would be used to help shore up the state's $1.6 billion budget deficit.
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One Mesa official said losing that money would set back construction of the freeway by four years, to 2016.
Mesa Mayor Scott Smith was more pessimistic.
"If it were to totally go away, the freeway won't get built, is the reality of it," Smith said Thursday. "It's not a matter of convenience; it's about whether that highway gets built."
Transportation officials at city, regional and state levels have said the Williams Gateway Freeway is needed because the far East Valley's growth has swamped the existing traffic network.
As currently planned, the highway would run 22 miles and connect Loop 202, near Ellsworth and Warner roads, to Florence Junction in Pinal County.
Two weeks ago, Scott Butler, Mesa's director of government relations, told the City Council it could ensure the money wouldn't be touched by agreeing to accelerate an agreement with the Maricopa Association of Governments and the Arizona Department of Transportation to start design work.
The council has yet to officially consider such an agreement.
But Mesa wasn't expecting the Legislature to look at taking the money as a way to fix the current fiscal year's budget. 2010, perhaps, but not 2009.
"We had initially believed we had a little bit more time," Butler said.
But lawmakers are close to taking back $104 million currently in an account called STAN: State Transportation Accelerated Needs. Other Valley projects that would be affected are: widening Interstate 10 near Buckeye and Interstate 17 in north Phoenix/Anthem; and improvements along Loop 303 in Surprise.
"As a general policy, it's been well documented that any fund that hasn't been spent is at risk of being swept," Smith said. "Since the 802 was appropriated and not spent, it's easy picking."
Smith also was concerned lawmakers would cut the funding in the expectation it would be restored by the federal government, as part of a proposed economic stimulus plan.
"The 802 is not eligible for the stimulus package," Smith said. "Because (other projects) are what are known as 'shovel ready,' those are eligible, and the problem is the 802 may be thrown into that class.
"So, we're educating the legislators that this is a whole different animal."
Legislative leaders anticipate soon approving the proposed sweeps and spending cuts of more than $600 million. The package then would go to Gov. Jan Brewer for her approval.
Butler said he would try to save the Williams Gateway funding by convincing lawmakers that infrastructure spending is the best kind of state spending during troubled economic times.
"We'll see what happens," Butler said. "But, frankly, it's not looking good."