High winds blow dust over Interstate-10 near Picacho Peak in April 2018.

Arizona Department of Transportation is on track to install a first-of-its-kind dust detection system on a major stretch of Interstate 10 recorded as one of the deadliest stretches of Arizona roads during dust storms.

The system will be placed between Sunshine Boulevard and Picacho Peak Road, mileposts 209 through 219, and will combine several existing technologies with new methods, including closed-circuit cameras and radar by October.

With the system in place, ADOT believes it will provide the most accurate and advanced warnings they can relay to motorists. A $12.8 million federal grant is funding the project.

“We want to build everybody’s confidence that we’re giving them reasonable information,” said Martin Lauber, the senior engineering project manager at ADOT, during the eighth annual Arizona Dust Storm Workshop in Coolidge on March 5.

“We’re not going to ask motorists to do something that they know is unreasonable.”

As the major thoroughfare from Phoenix to Tucson, the road leading past the Town of Picacho has seen the carnage of vehicles involved in some of the deadliest crashes in Arizona.

On Oct. 29, 2013, three people were killed in a 19-vehicle pileup during a dust storm along this same stretch of road where the system will go. The interstate had six miles of backed-up traffic into the night.

The system entails an X-BAND Doppler Radar that will supplement the National Weather Service’s use of radar in the area. Officials say it’ll give a more accurate reading to activity on ground level. The radar provides a 40-mile coverage area to spot incoming activity.

“When dust storms start at the ground level, we can’t see those on radar,” said Ken Waters, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “This radar is going to give us that opportunity, and we’re very excited about that.”

When dust storms and haboobs come, they can bring blinding dust in miles-long stretches and thousands of feet in the air. All it takes are high winds flowing across the dry southwest land to create the hazard.

Once that initial activity is spotted, NWS and ADOT will confirm and create the official alert for people in the region.

Dynamic message signs overhead will display if there’s reason to adhere to ADOT’s “Pull Aside, Stay Alive” warning or other safety guidelines for motorists.

Within the 10-mile stretch of road, you’ll pass four variable speed limit signs spaced out about 1,000 feet apart, which will tell drivers to slow down during a weather event. Speed limits would drop from 75 to 25 mph.

Speed feedback signs will also let drivers know the speed limit when they might not be watching their speed in the area.

More relief could be on the way for the stretch of road after researchers came together for Dust Storm Workshop at Central Arizona College. Several highlights from the workshop included:

  • Students at the University of Arizona testing what types of soil are most agitated at different wind speeds causing a dust storm. It could help with forecasting where the storms are most likely to occur.
  • The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality using environmentally safe chemicals to stop barren lands from kicking up dust. Results have been positive so far, and more research is underway to find a longer-term solution to the problem.
  • Studies that are underway at George Mason Universities about the spike of Valley Fever cases possibly being caused by frequent dust storms in the Southwest.
Down the Road

Road improvement project to close Valencia Road for four months

Construction crews will close Valencia Road between Wilmot and Kolb roads for four months starting March 18 at 10 a.m.

Valencia Road will be reconstructed from Kolb Road east to the newly constructed southeast ramp. Westbound and eastbound traffic on Valencia will access Kolb with use of the new southeast ramp.

Lane restrictions set for I-10 near Pinal Air Park Road

Motorists should expect overnight lane restrictions on I-10 near Pinal Air Park Road from March 18 to March 22.

Crews will work in the area nightly from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. for bridge deck work. The roadway will be reduced to one lane in each direction.

Contact Star reporter Shaq Davis at 573-4218 or sdavis@tucson.com

On Twitter: @ShaqDavis1