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Planners sketch out new interstate to Las Vegas

• Arizona Republic
Bypass around Valley part of idea on drawing board

  Sean Holstege - Sept. 15, 2009  
The Arizona Republic

 Few in the Valley have heard of Interstate 11, but support is gaining strength in two states to connect Phoenix and Las Vegas with what would be the first new interstate built in a quarter-century.

 The route, fusing 225 miles of improved U.S. 93 with about 150 miles of new freeway around the Valley, would strengthen the link between two of the fastest-growing cities in the nation.


Supporters envision smoother Phoenix-area  traffic and closer trade and tourism links between Phoenix and Las Vegas. With a major bypass around Phoenix, from I-10 near Casa Grande to U.S. 93 just north of Wickenburg, I-11 would become a prime freight route from Mexico to Las Vegas and beyond, promoters say.

But the project faces daunting hurdles.

The Phoenix-area bypass alone might cost up to $5 billion, and with no money in sight, a toll road is already being discussed. Decades of planning, studies and government approvals would be required. Even early decisions are years away.

The project may never happen. Many highway plans have languished or died. In 1960, the region's first long-range plan included a South Mountain Freeway still being designed and a freeway parallel to Camelback Road that got scrapped.

Nevertheless, earlier this month a major Valley developer in the potential freeway's path formed a non-profit to propel the project. Cities from Wickenburg to Las Vegas support I-11, along with U.S. senators, regional governments, and state and federal transportation agencies.

"There isn't a north-south corridor. It's a very important corridor for the national and even international scene," said Kent Cooper, assistant director of the Nevada Department of Transportation.

How it began

The idea for Interstate 11 grew out of a local effort to accommodate projected growth. In 2005, before the housing meltdown, West Valley landowners armed with development rights swamped the Federal Highway Administration with requests for I-10 interchanges.

Planners for the Maricopa Association of Governments were called in. With the Valley's population forecast to double by 2050, MAG found that I-10 would need 43 interchanges west of Loop 303 to keep up. The extra traffic would make Arizona's most important highway impassable.

So, MAG studied other options.

In 2008, MAG's Regional Council accepted a first map showing a ribbon of freeway winding north from I-10 near Arizona 85 and stretching toward Wickenburg. It was named the Hassayampa Freeway.

Later this month, MAG's council will vote on a second plan routing the Hassayampa Freeway south from I-10 and then curving east past the Estrella Mountains to reconnect with I-10 near Casa Grande. The freeway is part of $60 billion in Valley transportation improvements, including mass transit, that MAG considers necessary in the next half-century.

Phoenix and Las Vegas are expected to continue growing.

"We do not see that stopping," said Cooper of the Nevada DOT.

Planners quickly saw the benefits of naming the route an interstate to get federal funding. Interest grew at Arizona and Nevada transportation departments.

The Arizona Department of Transportation broadened the region's studies and launched a statewide long-range plan. It shows that by 2050, without new freeways, it will take Phoenix residents five hours to get out of town.

Why now?

Several trends are aligning to add momentum to the I-11 idea.

• Highway improvements. A critical Hoover Dam bypass bridge is set to open next year, removing a chokepoint on U.S. 93. ADOT has widened large stretches of the route into a four-lane divided highway, enough to meet federal interstate standards. The Nevada DOT has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to complete a freeway between the Colorado River and Las Vegas.

•  New state law. Gov. Jan Brewer signed a law allowing ADOT to enter partnerships with private enterprise, a first step toward Arizona's first toll road. The thinking is that an I-11 toll road would attract freight haulers willing to pay to avoid Phoenix congestion.

•  New federal law. The federal transportation spending bill expires this fall. When it is renewed, Congress can increase states' highway funding, create a new program or earmark money for specific projects. I-11 supporters want an earmark for a key environmental study.

•  Cross-border trade. Arizona is the gateway from Mexico for half the fresh produce consumed in the western United States. Las Vegas depends on I-15 and the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach for food and goods, but West Coast ports and the freeways leading from them are getting congested. Ongoing improvements at Arizona border crossings will make crossings there more appealing.

•  Vegas tourism. About 3 million people travel from Arizona to Las Vegas every year, and half drive on U.S. 93, tourism officials say.

•  Connections. President Barack Obama appointed former ADOT Director Victor Mendez to head the Federal Highway Administration. Mendez was involved in long-range planning and I-11 discussions before his departure.

Is it realistic?

"People are not just talking about this project. They are doing it," said Tom Skancke, a nationally renowned transportation consultant who represents the Las Vegas tourism industry. He said he expects I-11 work to start within 20 years because of public- and private-sector backing in two states.

Transportation and planning officials say that 40 years is a more realistic start date and that the work would happen in phases. Finding the money and political support could prove tricky. Five years after Maricopa County voters passed a countywide transportation tax, the economy has forced MAG's board to scale back the measure's plans. A future highway would pit the transportation needs of future residents against those who live in the region now.

Nothing can happen on the I-11 idea until an environmental study, expected to cost up to $7 million, is done.

ADOT Communications Director Matt Burdick said he expects the study to begin within two years.

The project must be included on the state's 20-year project list, to which money is assigned. In the meantime, private-sector backers are making a push.

"If the private sector stepped up and said, 'We will dedicate the right of way if you start the environmental study, ADOT would find the money for it," Skancke said.

Tom Hennessey is general manager for Douglas Ranch, a 37,000-acre tract west of the White Tanks slated for 110,000 homes, owned by development firm El Dorado Holdings Inc. The firm is willing to donate the right of way, he said.

Landholders, Buckeye and others last week formed a non-profit advocacy called Connecting Arizona and Nevada, Delivering Opportunities.

Traffic heads west on East Wickenburg Way in downtown Wickenburg. A proposed interstate linking the Valley and Las Vegas could ease congestion in the town, but it might take decades to build such a route.

More on this topic

The road to I-11

Building an interstate is a long and complex process. In Arizona, it would involve the Maricopa Association of Governments, the Arizona Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. The steps toward completion:

• MAG accepts the route.

• ADOT includes it in a fiscally achievable, 20-year plan.

• Congress, the state or the region finds money.

• ADOT programs the project in five-year spending cycles.

• ADOT completes an environmental study,

• ADOT approves the route and designates a number.

• The Federal Highway Administration designates the route as an interstate.

• ADOT conducts preliminary engineering and design work.

• ADOT buys the right of way.

• ADOT finishes engineering.

• ADOT puts out bids for the work.


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