More electric and fuel-efficient motor vehicles and a gas tax that hasn’t been changed in 30 years are making it increasingly more difficult for Arizona to provide a highway system that can serve its rapidly rising population.
During a recent briefing for the PHX East Valley Partnership, Floyd Roehrich Jr., an executive officer of the Arizona Department of Transportation, said shrinking revenue has cut by a third the state’s annual spending on its highway system.
As annual revenue has shrunk from $1.6 billion to about $1 billion, ADOT is focusing its dollars on preserving the state’s highway network and cutting back on projects that upgrade or extend it.
“We’re trying to deal with an ever-increasing demand on the system of a growing state, but the revenue stream for it has not kept up with those demands,” Roehrich told the business and community leaders who are part of EVP.
But that won’t impact two of the biggest projects looming on the horizon for Mesa motorists.
One is the three-year, $600 million overhaul of the I-10 from the Broadway Curve to Ray Road – what Roerich call “the most heavily traveled corridor in the state.”
The other is the $77 million Gateway Project, construction of five more miles of State Route 24 in southeast Mesa that will add an interim four-lane divided roadway between Ellsworth Road and Ironwood Drive by fall 2022.
The Broadway Curve project is set to get underway this summer as commuter traffic steadily returns to pre-pandemic levels.
It involves several major undertakings.
They include widening I-10 to six lanes in each direction between the Santan Freeway and Baseline Road and eight lanes in each direction between Baseline Road and the I-17 split; demolishing and replacing the Broadway Road bridge over I-10 and SR 143 between I-10 and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport; and a major reconfiguration of the I-10/US 60 interchange.
Roehrich said traffic management on I-10 is a major component of the project “with a lot of detouring for a period of time” – especially as traffic to and from Sky Harbor will be detoured.
In southeast Mesa, a stretch of SR 24 is now paved between Meridian Road and Ironwood Drive, near the boundary between Maricopa and Pinal counties, as an initial phase of the future intersection between SR 24 and Ironwood Drive.
A fleet of large trucks and other equipment is being used to haul dirt to build embankments for bridges that will carry SR 24 over Ellsworth Road in an area close to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, according to ADOT.
ADOT worked with the Federal Highway Administration and regional planners to arrange funding for the current SR 24 project as a way to provide drivers with a new route to ease local traffic demands – years ahead of when a full freeway could be built.
But in looking at ADOT’s developing five-year capital plan, Roehrich said, “Our strategy has been really focused on strategic Investments where we can afford it but really focus on preservation.”
Those preservation efforts include $1 billion over the next five years “to upgrade about 581 lane miles of pavement from fair and poor condition to good condition.” Bridges also are included in that spending.
In all, ADOT anticipates spending $2.8 billion of its $5 billion five-year budget on projects in the 13 counties outside Maricopa and Pima counties, Roehrich said. Another $2.3 billion will be spent in Maricopa County; $311 million in Pima County and $131 million for improvements at various airports in the state.
The major projects covered by the $2.8 billion spending include widening the I-10 between Phoenix and Casa Grande by adding another lane in each direction; building a “flex lane” on I-17 between Phoenix and Sunset Point to reduce northbound congestion at the beginning of weekends and southbound traffic jams on Sunday evenings; various smaller projects on I-40, eight bridges of I-15 that are within Arizona’s boundaries and on widening some remaining four-lane portions of I-93.
“But in the future, you’re going to see a lot a lot fewer of those outside (Maricopa and Pima counties) unless our revenue situation changes,” Roehrich said, adding that ADOT officials were concerned about having the funds for the I-10 widening until the governor used
For now, Maricopa and Pima counties have largely been spared the brunt of ADOT’S shrinking revenue stream because they also have a sales tax that can be used to help implement ADOT’s highway projects.
Maricopa County’s .05 percent gas tax was approved in 2005 when voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of Prop 400.
Prop 400 expires in 2024 and county and municipal leaders already are preparing to put its successor, often called Prop 500, on the ballot next year to be assured of funding for the next two decades.
Right now, Roehrich said, the final 21 projects funded through Prop 400 and the $2.3 billion in five-year ADOT budget have been scheduled.
Besides the I-10/Broadway Curve project and SR 24, other East Valley improvements include:
Widening the Santan Loop 202 Freeway to two lanes in each direction between the Loop 101 Price Freeway and Gilbert Road and one lane in each direction between Val Vista Drive and Gilbert Road;
Access improvements from the I-10 to the area around Wild Horse Pass;
Widening the Loop 101 Pima Freeway between Princess Drive and Shea Boulevard.
But as the Phoenix Metro area continues to expand deep into Pinal County, one of the biggest dream projects to improve overall ground transportation is construction of a north-south freeway that would run along the eastern region of Pinal and into the far East Valley.
While an environmental study is underway, funding for land acquisition and construction of that route could be years away because of ADOT’s shrinking revenue stream, Roehrich said.
That mirrors a prospect ADOT faces when it comes to addressing any kind of highway expansion outside Maricopa and Pima counties.
“If you look at this five-year program, when you look at that new fifth year that’s coming in the 2026, there are no expansion projects in greater Arizona,” he said. “All it is is preservation and modernization projects, trying to preserve what we have and strategic improvements in certain corridors of what we have on existing infrastructure.”
Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Sellers, a former member of the State Transportation Board – which approves funding for major highway projects in Arizona – said that right now, “we’re not even paying for maintenance today of the system we have.
“And with the growth we have in this state,” he continued, “we really need to be planning for improved infrastructure going forward and we have to have the money to maintain that.”
Some participants in the East Valley partnership briefing said both the governor and the Legislature have shied away from addressing the problem Roehrich described this way:
“We’re providing the system that the public is willing to pay for and they’re not happy with that. We’re going to need them to decide if they want to invest more to get the system they want because we can’t provide it with current revenue.”
Roehrich delivered his briefing before President Biden unveiled $2 trillion spending plan to improve a variety of aspects of the nation’s infrastructure. Of that $2 trillion, about $115 billion is designated for bridges and roads and $20 billion for unspecified “road safety” improvements.
But Roehrich said regardless of how much Arizona might get if the plan manages to win Congressional approval, the devil is in the details.
“I think one of the things we’ll need to understand is when the funds come are what are the conditions tied to it,” he said, explaining that stimulus money for years often comes with conditions that go beyond normal annual federal highway funding.
As for an increase in Arizona’s 18-cent-a-gallon gas tax, which provides $750 million annually, prospects for any increase by the current Legislature appear uncertain.
Prescott Rep. Noel Campbell was trying to get his colleagues early last year to double that tax, saying the $750 million it generated in annual revenue fell far short of Arizona’s highway needs.
But before that bill could make much headway, the legislative session was brought to an abrupt end as the pandemic spread in Arizona.
The pandemic did a lot more damage to ADOT than halt that effort.
With businesses shutdown and more people working at home, less gas was being bought and revenue from the gas tax plummeted, forcing ADOT and the Transportation Board last year to scramble on its original five-year plan and delay or cancel projects that had been on the drawing board.
Roehrich didn’t sound too optimistic when how prepared ADOT is to meet the needs that will be created by rapid job expansion and explosive housing growth well beyond the current boundaries of the Phoenix Metro region.
“I’d say we’re half way to addressing that and that we’re lucky to be at that,” he said, “but there’s still a lot we’re going to need to do and the state still is going to grow. I mean, we’re continuing to see the economy come back and I think the economy is going to move a lot faster than the state can on infrastructure.”