Pima County's $40 million plan to protect Raytheon has evolved into a $90 million one-road-fits-all plan designed to meet the needs of a growing list of existing and hoped-for future employers in a broad corridor across Tucson's far south side.
But coming up with the $90 million to get it built will require a large infusion of county bonds, state and federal funding - and possibly even Pima County's first road tolls, said County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.
Huckelberry is billing it as "probably the most important economic development project that's come along in 30 years."
The planning began when local leaders reacted to the shock of Raytheon Missile Systems choosing Huntsville, Ala., over Tucson as the site of a new business unit a few years ago.
Raytheon is the Tucson area's largest private employer and Huckelberry wanted a plan to protect jobs and allow the company to grow here.
The initial idea was for the county to buy land and shift roadways around Raytheon, creating a buffer zone that would help the company keep its current contracts and provide a business park site for a future expansion.
The work was to cost $40 million, including $29 million in funding from a future bond election, now tentatively scheduled for 2014.
But since then, the county has moved ahead quickly with the plan, spending $6 million in general fund money to buy the buffer land and securing $8 million from the Pima Association of Governments to relocate Hughes Access Road.
Once those projects didn't need to be part of the bond package, Huckelberry started to rethink the scope.
Now he is proposing an Aerospace Parkway, a highway that would meet all the needs of the old plans for about $90 million in bond money.
"We now have a larger vision for this roadway becoming a real state highway, and an interstate really," Huckelberry said.
The project would help not only help Raytheon but also connect two University of Arizona research parks, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the Arizona Air National Guard, the airport and the Port of Tucson.
The Hughes Access Road relocation would become part of the parkway, as would the Old Vail Connection Road. Together, they would form a new state highway stretching from Interstate 10 at Rita Road near the UA Tech Park to Nogales Highway, near a new 2,500-acre research park, creating an Aerospace and Defense Corridor.
A later phase, which is not part of the proposed bond package, would connect the parkway to Interstate 19, likely though Sahuarita. The convergence of highways, rail lines and an airport in one area on Tucson's south side would create an Import Distribution Zone.
"There's been this kind of rethinking of the road to actually make it much more functional from an interstate and interstate commerce perspective," Huckelberry said.
Because the new highway would be a closed system, it could be a toll road to help pay for itself, he said.
Huckelberry is asking the Bond Advisory Committee to add the highway to the draft bond package at its May meeting.
Committee chairman Larry Hecker said he personally likes the way the idea has developed and that one project could provide mobility and access to several key economic centers.
But the committee needs to hear more about the rationale behind the project and the defined benefits it could bring.
"The ultimate benefit is the creation and retention of well-paying jobs," Hecker said.
The committee wants Huckelberry to explain what kinds of jobs could be created.
Advocates for the aerospace/defense and logistics industries support the plan.
Mike Grassinger, president of the D-M 50 and CEO of The Planning Center, called Huckelberry's plan "visionary."
"I think it's a really good move that he's making that's going to help secure the continued existence of Raytheon in our community," Grassinger said.
Mike Valencia, president of the Southern Arizona Logistics Education Organization, said the highway project is important for attracting employers who need a strategic logistics hub.
"It's another one of those important blocks in building this community into a major logistics center," Valencia said.
He said the highway would save time for companies moving goods from Mexico and the distribution zone would provide truck, rail and air options for moving those goods beyond Tucson.
Contact reporter Becky Pallack at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4346. On Twitter @BeckyPallack.