The dream of six wide-open lanes between Tucson and Phoenix has been deferred again — this time a victim of too-high construction prices and too-little money flowing into state coffers.
Two projects along Interstate 10, one near the town of Picacho and another near the Interstate 8 interchange, are essentially shovel-ready. But they’ve been pushed off the Arizona Department of Transportation’s five-year plan due to their combined $125 million price tag.
The widening to three lanes in each direction along I-10 near the I-8 exit is expected to start in 2020 and cost $40 million.
A similar project near Picacho, with an estimated price tag of $85 million, is tentatively slated to start in 2021. That stretch is more complex, and requires replacing two, two-lane bridges.
Another widening project along I-10, which cuts through Gila River Indian Community near the Queen Creek exit, is not part of ADOT’s plans for the next decade, said Scott Omer, director of the Multimodal Planning Division at ADOT.
“The department realizes it is a need, but we haven’t moved it forward yet,” Omer said. “It is not that we are not committed to doing it; it is just we don’t have the funding available.”
That project, which requires further discussions with the tribe, does not yet have an estimated price tag, Omer said.
To some extent, all three projects are victims of decreased federal spending for highway and bridge maintenance and a decline in revenues from the state’s gas tax. The board had previously considered starting the two projects in the next five years, but was forced to postpone them due to their high costs.
“There just wasn’t funding capacity at the time to pay for it,” Omer said. He said the board and the department made the decision to defer the I-8 and Picacho projects until after 2020.
An analysis by the Associated Press found total per-capita spending for highway maintenance increased in Arizona by nearly 6 percent between 2003 and 2013. By contrast, the rate of inflation increased by 27 percent in that same time period.
Arizona state spending for highways, coupled with federal dollars, is significantly below the national average, the Associated Press found. Nationally, combined state and federal highway spending increased by 32 percent from 2003 to 2013. (For more details about the AP study, see related story.)
In the last decade, the Arizona Department of Transportation has spent nearly $170 million — some of it federal stimulus dollars — to widen several stretches of I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix from two lanes to three.
Steve Christy, who sits on the state transportation board, has been fighting for widening of I-10 widening since he was appointed in 2009.
During his first meeting after being appointed by then-Gov. Jan Brewer, Christy argued in favor of funding to widen I-10 between Marana and Picacho. Another member of the board targeted the project, concerned that it diverted too much money from other rural projects.
In response, Christy rallied Tucson’s government and business leaders to help keep the project moving ahead.
The narrow stretches of I-10 can be dangerous, as traffic has to merge at high speeds. Beyond that, shipping companies complain that the added congestion slows down semi-trucks and hurts their bottom line.
Christy says the department is strictly in maintenance mode in an attempt to preserve current conditions for the state’s estimated $19.7 billion in infrastructure.
Christy said he is open to finding new revenue solutions — the state’s gas tax, for example, has not been adjusted since 1990.
State Sen. Steve Farley, a Democrat from Tucson, is frustrated as well. He said funding road maintenance with a gas tax is a flawed idea in a century where fuel-efficient hybrid cars have helped to decrease overall gas consumption.
“It is a great 20th-century model,” Farley said.
Farley, who was caught in a deadly dust storm along I-10 in 2013, has attempted to introduce bills to address transportation funding problems. But they have rarely been heard in a committee.
He said he isn’t committed to a single idea to fix the problem; he just wants to find a sustainable model to fund road maintenance and construction.
He is optimistic that another project along I-10, a planned rail line between Tucson and Phoenix, will continue to move forward.
“The future of that corridor is not just about cars and trucks,” he said. “It is about passenger rail.”