Construction on the East Valley's newest freeway will begin this spring, paving the way for a vast swath of desert to transform into a major employment hub.
The Gateway Freeway will open in late 2013 near the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport. The initial length of State Route 24 is a single mile, but the tiny segment is considered a big deal in an area that has few roads.
The freeway will create access to the east side of the airport and go near the First Solar manufacturing plant, the proposed 1,500-room Gaylord resort and DMB Associates' Eastmark development on the former Mesa Proving Grounds site. Several other business parks and mid-rise buildings are in the works, all because of their proximity to the freeway.
The freeway will help the area become a major center for new jobs, said Scot Rigby, an economic development project manager for Mesa.
"This is going to be the major economic engine not just for Mesa, but the East Valley and the South East Valley," Rigby said.
The timeline for development depends largely on the economy. But by 2013, DMB will start selling the first 800 homes of a much larger master-planned community close to the freeway.
The freeway will begin where the Loop 202 Santan Freeway curves near the airport and heads southeast, ending at Ellsworth Road.
It will improve access to a large volume of traffic coming from Queen Creek, San Tan Valley and Johnson Ranch.
"It alleviates a lot of the traffic problems with Pinal County and southern Maricopa County," Rigby said.
The freeway's route has been established to Ironwood Road but there is currently only funding to build the initial mile, said Doug Nintzel, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Transportation.
Still, Mesa Councilman Scott Somers said the city is eager to get the highway started.
"That portion of the 24 is the first leg of a new freeway system that will go through what arguably will be the fastest-growing portion of our state, all the way down to Tucson," Somers said. "So it opens up a much-needed transit route from the Valley into Pinal County and to Tucson."
He likened the initial segment to the roughly mile-long segment of Metro light rail that opened as part of a 20-mile long system in 2008. With that section in place, a much more important 3.1-mile extension into downtown Mesa will begin construction this year.
Somers said he's confident money will be identified this decade to finish the freeway further east in Mesa.
"It may only be a mile, but it's a very important mile," he said. "It's going to do a lot with helping us recruit more jobs and industries."
Mesa was so eager to begin the freeway that the city agreed in 2010 to put up $5.6 million to advance construction. Work was originally scheduled to begin in 2016 at a cost of $158 million.
The decision likely saved millions by avoiding years of inflation. But the recession also drove down costs substantially. ADOT estimates the freeway will cost $75.9 million when a contract is awarded in February.
Construction will likely begin in April and last 18 months, Nintzel said. The work will trigger some restrictions and occasional nighttime or weekend closures while bridge girders are constructed. The girders will support 50-foot tall flyover ramps.
The freeway will continue running east as it crosses into Pinal County. Transportation officials have studied where Route 24 will tie into U.S. 60. But that won't be established until after the route of a north-south freeway in Pinal County is decided, Nintzel said.
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