The Arizona Department of Transportation will install dust sensors, warning signs and variable-speed-limit signs along a deadly stretch of Interstate 10.

The warnings will be installed by early 2019 from milepost 209 near Eloy to milepost 219 near Picacho Peak. The interstate there is flanked with degraded desert and fallow farmland where localized “dust channel” storms have caused numerous fatal crashes over the years.

“If you look west from I-10, there is 100 miles of desert and all those fallow fields — a lot of space open to high winds, and they can be unexpected,” said ADOT spokesman Tom Herrmann.

“We can’t stop the dust, but we can put in a warning system,” Herrmann said.

The sensors will detect the dust when it is more a mile away, Hermann said. The department is to begin design work on the system this month. It hasn’t yet selected the sensors and is looking worldwide for the latest, most dependable technology, he said.

When the sensors give an early warning, ADOT traffic engineers will be able to confirm the detection with cameras and can activate message boards and variable-speed-limit signs installed along the stretch, Hermann said.

The spaced speed-limit signs will gradually reduce speeds to 35 mph. In extreme conditions, the signs can announce closures, he said.

The $12.8 million project will be partly funded by a $54 million federal grant that also helps pay for widening two stretches of the interstate between Tucson and Phoenix that have only two lanes.

Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said he’d like to see more attention paid to the sources of dust along the interstate.

He’s been working with a group of state and local officials to see if digging furrows and planting desert vegetation on land flanking the interstate would reduce the dust.

“It’s good and bad news,” Farley said. “I’m happy they’re doing something.”

But Farley said the problem that this sensor system targets could be solved with rehabilitation of the abandoned farmland alongside the interstate.

“I’d like to see a cost-benefit analysis,” he said.

“Obviously this has a great benefit, but what if we can stop the problem from happening?”

The system, if successful, will eventually be deployed in other problem areas of the state, Hermann said.

“We’re putting them in this section because this is the area of most immediate need with heavy dust and heavy traffic between Tucson and Phoenix,” he said.

Future deployment could occur along parts of the eastern stretch of I-10 and in the west near the California state line.

Sensors could also be installed along problem areas of Interstate 40 to detect both blowing dust and snow, Herrmann said.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@tucson.com or 520- 573-4158. Follow

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