After decades of planning and preparation, years of litigation and 36 months of digging, blasting and back-breaking work, the Congressman Ed Pastor Freeway has opened.
The opening Saturday came four days after a gathering on one of its new Salt River Bridges Dec. 18 hailed completion of the massive project.
Flanked by Chandler Mayor Kevin Hartke, former Chandler Councilman/current County Supervisor and State Transportation Board Chairman Jack Sellers and scores of other state and local leaders, Gov. Doug Ducey held a press to celebrate completion of the 22-mile, eight-lane link connecting the Chandler and West 59th Avenue interchange on Interstate 10 – and a thoroughfare for an estimated 117,000 to 140,000 vehicles a day, half of them trucks.
Arizona Department of Transportation Director John Halikowski at the time said the delay was till Saturday was necessary for some final work, including the installation of lane reflectors and the application of a skid-resistant material on the rubberized asphalt.
Ducey and others hailed the achievement, which at $1.7 billion is the most expensive single highway project in state history, saying it “connects the East Valley and West Valley in ways that will impact the region’s economy for decades and “enable our state’s growth for generations to come.”
There are three major pieces will take about six months to complete.
They include two last-minute additions to the project totaling an extra $20 million – interchanges at 32nd Street in Ahwatukee and around Ivanhoe Street near the Vee Quiva Casino on the Gila River Indian Community.
Also slated for completion next year is the 15-to-20-foot-wide multi-use path along six miles of southern side of the Ahwatukee segment of freeway ADOT agreed to build after cyclists and joggers complained about the loss of flat Pecos Road and its mountain and open-desert vistas.
The $1.7-billion freeway is the work of Arizona’s first major public-private partnership between ADOT and a consortium of companies called Connect202Partners.
This partnership used a design-build approach to the freeway with a 30-year maintenance agreement. Connect202Partners is led by Fluor Enterprises Inc., and includes Granite Construction Co., Ames Construction Inc. and Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc. as the lead designer. Additionally, 10 subcontractors had participated in the construction.
Fluor and DBi Services, LLC, will maintain the lanes for 30 years with oversight from ADOT.
“The project has turned heads around the industry because its sophisticated alternative delivery package is expected to result in cost savings between $122 million and $200 million and bring motorists onto the new freeway about three years ahead of schedule,” said HDR, a general engineering consultant ADOT used for the freeway.
The project includes two half-mile bridges over the Salt River, 15 interchanges, high-occupancy vehicle lanes as well as HOV ramps, five underpasses for wildlife and hikers and the state’s first half-divergent diamond interchanges.
The two half-divergent interchanges are both in Ahwatukee, at Desert Foothills Parkway and 17th Avenue, and are patterned after full-divergent diamond interchanges in a handful of other states to improve safety and mobility for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.
Along the entire stretch of the freeway, crews installed more than 20 miles of drainage pipe, laid over 107,000 tons of asphalt pavement, installed more than 1,000 girders, built 40 bridges, moved 9.9 million cubic yards of dirt and used 10,800 tons of rebar manufactured from recycled steel.
Government and private-sector leaders hailed the project as a vital step toward the completion of the freeway loop system promising to stimulate massive economic development in parts of Phoenix and the West Valley.
“Throughout the design-build-maintain lifecycle, South Mountain Freeway is estimated to create about 30,000 jobs,” HDR said, indicating it would generate $2 billion in economic development along the entire stretch of the freeway and beyond.
Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels said last year, “As an East Valley mayor, I am especially excited to see this extension take place from a business perspective. The freeway will provide an economic development corridor and will better connect businesses in the East and West Valleys.”
“I saw firsthand how the Loop 202 Santan Freeway helped business development,” Daniels added.
Hartke said Chandler has been preparing for months for the freeway to open – eager to tap into the potential job market in the West Valley to fill hundreds of opening in Chandler.
“There’s a very qualified workforce out there, whether it’s plumbers, electricians, carpenters or engineers,” Hartke told the San Tan Sun News, saying newer companies have settled in Chandler “are super-excited about this freeway opening.”
This flow of jobs could be a two-way street.
Orion Real Estate Investment said while the freeway would be “a release valve for traffic congestion on existing freeways and local streets,” it envisions explosive growth in the West Valley
“It’s not often when 22 miles of freeway is added to a major city in the U.S.,” Orion said. “It also isn’t often when a large area becomes ripe for a slew of economic development opportunities for a variety of markets. Phoenix is set to see all of this become a reality when the South Mountain Freeway is finished.”
It predicted the industrial sector “will feel the most immediate impact.”
“The West Valley has become the epicenter of Phoenix’s industrial market, primarily for logistics operations,” it said, noting the traffic congestion on the I-10 “has been caused by semi-trucks moving goods eastward.”
“Last-mile deliverers will likely view West Valley as a more viable location moving forward and will feel less pressure to establish operations somewhere in the East Valley,” Orion said.” Conversely, logistics companies in the East Valley will have easier access to the West Valley and major metropolitan areas in California.”
Orion also forecasts an explosion in multifamily construction, primarily in areas of south and west Phoenix - likely in Laveen and South Mountain.
It also noted Gilbert and Chandler were basically “farm towns with an abundance of developable land” until they “were transformed into dynamic economic engines in a relatively short period of time.”
Orion also forecast significant office building and retail growth will follow the resident development.
Less clear is the impact on the huge swath of reservation land the freeway runs near. One warehouse project already is on the books on Gila River Indian Community land at 40th Street and the ramps near Ivanhoe Street are being installed partly to provide “improved access to and from the Gila River Indian Community west of the freeway.”
Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said despite the bitter and prolonged court effort the community waged to stop the freeway, “We’re now connected and we’re looking to the future.”
He also noted the community’s ongoing negotiations for the widening of a 22-mile stretch of I-10 between the Chandler interchange and Casa Grande – the only four-lane stretch on the six-lane interstate – now “has top priority.”
Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell, as chair of the Maricopa County of Governments, spoke about the freeway’s economic impact, noting more than half of the future population and job growth in Maricopa County will be in its southeastern and southwestern quarters.
Echoing, Federal Highway Administration Division Administrator Karla Petty said, “This segment of the Loop 202 will provide faster and easier access between the East and West Valley cities while making it more convenient for residents to access other parts of the Valley for work, shopping, education and entertainment.”
The South Mountain Freeway – renamed in honor of the late Congressman Pastor’s work on behalf of many freeway projects in Arizona – was first conceived in 1983 as the Southwest Loop Highway. It became more than a wish list item when voters approved the freeway system in 1985.
But it wasn’t until ADOT began buying up homes in Ahwatukee neighborhoods in the early part of this century as part of its right-of-way acquisitions when opposition ballooned.
The Gila River Indian Community and a group of Ahwatukee homeowners united as Protect Arizona’s Resources and Children had distinct reasons for fighting the freeway in the form of two federal lawsuits, eventually were treated by the courts as one big case.
Native Americans primarily opposed the freeway because it cut through three peaks of South Mountain, which they consider sacred. PARC zeroed in on the environmental impact of all the trucks and cars on children who attended more than a dozen schools along the thoroughfare’s path.
Those environmental concerns also were shared by the Gila River Indian Community, which accused ADOT of running roughshod over sacred burial sites despite ADOT’s assertion it devoted countless hours to carefully examining land in the freeway’s path so no sacred sites were desecrated.
Ahwatukee homeowners near the freeway’s footprint said the tens of thousands of vehicles a day estimated to use the freeway will generate toxic fumes they said could pose health hazards not only to school children but virtually anyone living there.
“No freeway is worth the destruction of the South Maintain Park and Preserve,” PARC President Patricia Lawlis said last week. “This freeway represents a huge investment for little benefit except for trucking companies is especially reprehensible.”
Both ADOT and FHA vehemently denied the allegations, contending they had devoted years of analysis to the freeway’s impact on wells, air, noise and nearby parkland and the had adhered to all federal environmental guidelines, even going beyond the mandated guidelines.
The tribal and neighborhood parties in the suit filed thousands of briefs and exhibits to stop the freeway.
In August 2016, U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa’s issued a 35-page decision rejecting all the opponents’ claims and ADOT announced it would immediately begin removing federally protected plants, such as Saguaros, from the freeway path and relocating them in safe areas for replanting once construction was complete.
Thousands of more pages of briefs followed as opponents tried to upend the decision in the Ninth District of the U.S. Court of Appeals.
The fight died there as a panel of judges upheld Humetawa.
But the discontent didn’t die.
The construction triggered numerous complaints by residents, who said crews working almost round-the-clock were disrupting people’s sleep and extensive blasting cracked foundations and walls on homes and garages,
Residents already have been bitterly complaining about unshielded lights, forcing a number of residents to buy black-out curtains as their backyards look like stadiums during a night game.
But while resentment among some people is drowned out by praise for the project, one thing is clear: The freeway will likely be open any day and bring with it a new world to thousands.