In 2030, Pinal County will have as many people as the East Valley does today.
And while the East Valley’s roughly 1 million residents have multiple freeways to get them around, Arizona officials are looking at just two new freeways for northern Pinal County.
Some East Valley and Pinal County leaders say that doesn’t add up.
If tiny Queen Creek is already congested, they ask, what happens when another 800,000 residents live between there and Coolidge? And because northern Pinal County will still have plenty of land to build on, how much worse will things get in a couple more decades when Pinal County is fully developed?
Roc Arnett of the East Valley Partnership fears current planning efforts will doom Pinal County to gridlock.
"It’s not enough," Arnett said.
His concern is shared by others in the county — and by the top transportation planner in Maricopa County.
They say a study under way by the Arizona Department of Transportation is flawed. They are pressing state planners to rethink their work.
ADOT planners acknowledge Pinal County may need more freeways than they’re planning, albeit decades from now. But it’s too early to plan that far ahead because so many things could change in the next quarter-century, said Dianne Kresich, a regional planner at ADOT.
"Even when this study is finished, there will be other studies that are likely to look at these corridors," Kresich said. "So this is not necessarily the final word."
ADOT plans to finish its study and formally adopt a transportation plan by year’s end.
The disagreement involves a transportation plan for Pinal County that dates to 2003. That plan wasn’t meant to be the ultimate vision on the issue, but it suggested the area will need five regional highways or freeways. The $500,000 study involved ADOT, the Maricopa Association of Governments and the Central Arizona Association of Governments.
Now, ADOT is doing its own version of the study. It’s still in progress, but so far it’s outlined the demand for two freeways and a parkway.
One would extend U.S. 60 as a freeway from Apache Junction through Gold Canyon. Another would run from about Coolidge to an alreadyplanned freeway a few miles east of Williams Gateway Airport. A parkway would run roughly along Ironwood Drive, south of U.S. 60 to the future Williams Gateway Freeway.
ADOT didn’t see a need for the three other potential highways in the 2003 study — not at least by 2030. However, ADOT did leave room for cities and Pinal County to set aside land by major roads. That would allow highways or freeways to go in decades from now if needed.
The criticism of ADOT’s planning is normal, Kresich said, but not strong.
Critics say ADOT must look further ahead given Arizona’s history of explosive growth since World War II. Pinal County should expect rapid growth after 2030, meaning it will need more freeways than ADOT is planning now, said Eric Anderson, the transportation director for the Maricopa Association of Governments.
"What we’ve learned in Maricopa County is it seems we’re always growing faster than people think," Anderson said. "How can we apply those lessons to Pinal County? It seems we ought to be looking a little more ‘big picture.’ "
The routes suggested in the 2003 study would better serve the area, he said.
Anderson also said the Williams Gateway Freeway will need to go farther east than the ADOT study calls for. ADOT recommends building it from the Santan Freeway leg of Loop 202 to a northsouth freeway near Ironwood Drive. It should continue east to U.S. 60, Anderson said, because it will serve an area nearly as populous as the East Valley.
"We would think that eventually it’s going to want to go out to U.S. 60, so we ought to plan for that, rather than say, ‘We’ll take it this far and somebody else needs to worry about it,’ " Anderson said.
Anderson and Arnett called for ADOT’s study to consider the needs of 2050, when most of northern Pinal County will fill up.
"Let’s at least give our grandchildren a chance of having transportation infrastructure in place," Arnett said.
Meetings set: ADOT is holding public hearings on its Pinal County highway corridor study. The hearings are from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
• Monday, Apache Junction City Council Chambers, 300, East Superstition Boulevard
• Tuesday, Queen Creek Town Hall, 22350 S. Ellsworth Road
• Aug. 29, Southeast Regional Library in Gilbert, 775 N. Greenfield Road
• Aug. 30, Florence Town Hall, 755 N. Main