Arizona officials have committed to more Pinal County freeways in response to critics who said the state’s transportation efforts were too little, too late.
The Arizona Department of Transportation revealed plans for more freeways Tuesday as it nears the end of a highway study for the booming county.
ADOT officials also said they’re planning major roads needed when the county is fully developed, instead of the standard practice of planning only 25 years into the future.
Critics said earlier plans could doom Pinal County — and the East Valley — to gridlock by not building enough freeways. That fear subsided somewhat.
"There seems to be some movement but it doesn’t go far enough," said Jim Patterson, a former Chandler mayor who now is on the East Valley Partnership.
The plan’s highlights include:
• Extending the planned Williams Gateway Freeway from Loop 202 to U.S. 60 near Gold Canyon. Originally, the freeway stopped just east of the Maricopa County line.
• Committing to an eastwest freeway by 2030 from east of Queen Creek to Florence Junction. Earlier plans didn’t specify the type of road, and pushed it to after 2030.
• Committing to a northsouth freeway by 2030 that goes south of Florence. The old plan didn’t specify the type of road and delayed it until after 2030.
• Adopting several state routes into planning efforts, which is a first step in preserving land for widening.
ADOT officials said they may need to change their plan significantly because nobody can predict how fast Pinal County will grow. Also, it’s unclear if the county will have lots of jobs or become a bedroom community for Maricopa County workers. Those factors will require vastly different road systems.
ADOT has mechanisms in place to ensure its plans adapt to the situation, said Dale Buskirk, who oversees ADOT’s transportation planning division.
"As this area develops, it’s going to be absolutely critical we continue planning," he said.
By calling for freeways needed by 2030, the plan brings more certainty to transportation projects in northern Pinal County. That area is projected to swell to more than 1 million people by 2030. That’s roughly the size of the East Valley today.
Several Maricopa County officials said they feared ADOT would not plan enough freeways in Pinal County, setting up the area for a repeat of what happened in Maricopa County. Though Maricopa County began planning its freeway system in the late 1950s, it still isn’t completed.
"We ought to learn from our mistakes," Patterson said.
He called for even more freeways — including one along Hunt Highway through Chandler and Gilbert. That idea has triggered protests by residents in the area, but Patterson said it’s time to reserve land there and anyplace else that will need one.
"It’s going to be too much, but if you don’t identify the costs, you don’t know what you’re shooting at," Patterson said.
The top transportation planner for Maricopa County said it’s still unclear if ADOT is planning enough roads. But Eric Anderson of the Maricopa Association of Governments said it seems ADOT "is headed in the right direction."
Enough or not, the ADOT plan reveals an equally big problem: A lack of funding.
The freeways and roads will cost about $6 billion.
ADOT doesn’t have the money. Neither does Pinal County, which will likely need to use its transportation funds on local roads.
The county funds transportation work with a half-cent sales tax and is looking to raise more funds by charging impact fees on new construction.
That’s enough money to split the costs of some roads with ADOT, said Pinal County Supervisor Sandie Smith, DDistrict 2 of Gold Canyon. Some state officials said that’s not enough.
"We are woefully short of being able to finance these projects," said S.L. Shorr, a member of the State Transportation Board.
Funding aside, ADOT still needs to do years of study to determine exactly where roads will go and how much traffic they’ll carry, ADOT spokesman Doug Nintzel said.