Severio Kyyitan was awoken one recent morning by a thunderous thumping that reverberated through the walls of his home.
It might be an earthquake, he thought, until he looked outside and discovered a pack of wild horses running by his property on the Gila River Indian Community.
Animals have free reign on the reservation, he said, and that’s the way Kyyitan likes it.
He’s hopeful state officials will keep wildlife in mind as they plan a possible widening of Interstate 10 through the reservation.
“We know it’s a need,” Kyyitan said, adding that he doesn’t want the project to interfere with nature.
The tribe has been working with the Arizona Department of Transportation to study the feasibility of adding another lane in each direction to a 26-mile stretch I-10 from Chandler to Casa Grande that the state has dubbed the Wild Horse Pass Corridor.
This portion of the freeway – the only spot on the interstate that has four lanes instead of six – runs almost entirely along tribal land, meaning the state will have to negotiate an agreement before construction can commence.
But ADOT said widening is essential, particularly because I-10 is a “key commercial corridor that supports significant commercial and economic growth for the region, the state and the nation.”
During a recent public meeting sponsored by ADOT and the Maricopa Association of Governments in Sacaton, tribal members expressed support for improving the freeway in order to relieve traffic congestion.
But some worry about whether enough tribal members know of the project while others have concerns of its long-term effects.
For a resident like Kyyitan, who has spent most of his life on the reservation, there are concerns about how the immediate environment could be impacted by a bigger freeway.
Central Arizona is already prone to dangerous dust storms, so he would like to see ADOT consult some weather experts.
The Gila River Indian Community has not always been welcoming in the past to Arizona encroaching on its land in order to extend freeways.
The tribe attempted to stop the state from building its South Mountain Freeway by filing a lawsuit, claiming the project would cut through sacred land – namely South Mountain – and it jeopardized water resources.
But the courts eventually ruled in the state’s favor and allowed the 22-mile freeway to extend from Chandler to west Phoenix. Construction is expected to be completed early next year, though the freeway is expected to open in December.
The tribe seems to be more open to the idea of expanding I-10. It has agreed to participate in a freeway study and has invited state officials to come to the reservation and gather input from community members.
“We have a lot of positive momentum,” said Quinn Castro, a transportation engineer for the Maricopa Association of Governments.
The state wants this to be an inclusive process, she added, and will be gathering input from all stakeholders.
MAG has committed funding from a half-cent sales tax to pay for expanding the six-mile section of I-10 running through Maricopa County. But there’s another 20 miles of the freeway in Pinal County that wouldn’t be covered by MAG.
ADOT has pledged about $50 million for improving the freeway, which may not cover the project’s total cost.
Castro said the year-long study will assess three alternatives: a no-build option and two options to construct improvements.
If a build-option is ultimately pursued, then the state will have to amend an easement it obtained back in the 1960s from Gila River to build I-10.
An amendment hasn’t been done before, Castro added, so it will take time to figure out the process.
“Things were much different when the freeway was originally constructed and that easement was based on line-work and right-of-way plans from that time,” she said.
The Gila River Indian Community encompasses about 584 square-miles between Chandler and Casa Grande.
With a population of only about 11,000 residents, the reservation consists mostly of a rural desert landscape that contrasts sharply with the metropolitan suburbs surrounding Phoenix.
Linda Shelde, a tribal member, was raised on the reservation and enjoys its remoteness from bigger cities. She hopes widening the interstate won’t alter that.
“I like the way it is now,” Shelde said. “This is where we were placed, this is what we have, this is what we want.”
She knows an expansion is inevitable due to population growth around the region. But she hopes the state will have some contingency plans in place for when the time comes to add another lane.
Construction detours will likely bring more traffic through the reservation’s roads, Shelde said, and she’d like some reassurance that Gila River won’t be entirely on the hook for maintaining and patrolling this infrastructure.
ADOT recently finished adding another lane to I-10 for a section running south of Eloy.
Over the last decade, ADOT has been expanding the capacity of I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson in segments. In late 2019, after ADOT completes two widening projects between Earley Road and Interstate 8 in Casa Grande and between Eloy and Picacho, I-10 will be three lanes in each direction between SR-387 near Casa Grande and Tucson.
Margie Thompson, an Eloy resident, didn’t recall many issues with the project south of Eloy when it was underway last year.
But when it comes to the part of I-10 running north to Chandler, she foresees some challenges with building another lane and managing the current traffic flow.
According to ADOT, it takes about 34 minutes to drive from Casa Grande to Chandler on the freeway. That time is projected to grow to 42 minutes by 2040 if I-10 remains unchanged.
Thompson said she appreciates how ADOT is taking its time to work with the tribe and figure out a plan.
“I like the fact they’re not rushing into it and wasting money,” Thompson said. “They’re gonna take the time to study it.”
In addition to expanding I-10, the state is studying whether it should replace a bridge on the interstate that crosses over the Gila River.
The bridge was built in 1964 and has endured years of flooding and traffic jams. Its functional lifespan is expected to run out within the next decade or so.
Clement Harvey, another tribal member, said he doesn’t have any problems with improving the bridge or freeway.
He regularly drives over the bridge to get to Phoenix and thinks its narrowness is a safety hazard for the community.
“There’s barely enough room for two semis to go side-by-side,” Harvey said. “I’ve seen it done, but I don’t want to be in that area when something happens.”
Residents still have the opportunity to provide input on the freeway by emailing or calling ADOT. Comments submitted by Oct. 3 will be included in its freeway study. Information/commenting: 10wildhorsepasscorridor.com