It seems Arizona’s population has become more than its roads can handle — and people are lining up behind a grand plan to speed things up.
Influential business leaders, frustrated with the pace of traffic in the Valley, are trying to pick up the pace of highway projects here and across the state, saying the state’s population growth is outpacing road construction.
The business leaders will present their case to lawmakers and transportation experts on June 14, hoping to secure more money for the state’s road projects. No specific plan is in place, but advocates cite a few key goals:
• Complete Proposition 400 projects in 15 years, instead of on the 20-year schedule for highway, road, bus and light-rail projects that Maricopa County voters approved in 2004.
• Combine Maricopa and Pinal counties transportation planning into one entity. This could speed up projects in Pinal County, where at least five new freeways are planned — but have no funding source.
• Advance highway and transit projects statewide. This would include widening Interstates 10 and 17 toward Tucson and Flagstaff, respectively.
A key advocate of the accelerated transportation plan is Marty Schultz, a lobbyist with Arizona Public Service Co. who was active in shaping Proposition 400 two years ago. Since voters approved the $15.8 transportation plan, Schultz has moved to get it done faster, and to speed up road projects across Arizona.
Because population growth has raced ahead of projections since 2004, Schultz said the need has become more urgent for a new deadline for road projects.
“We’re going to be in a congested state, which is untenable, and we can do better,” Schultz said.
Speeding up construction is more concept than plan. Schultz and other advocates said they don’t have specific dates for specific projects — or research to show what this will cost and how to raise money for the work.
For now, advocates are trying to build support to accelerate construction and worry about the details later. The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry has found strong support for the idea, said Farrell Quinlan, chamber vice president.
“We’re sort of falling behind in keeping up with the growth,” Quinlan said. “A lot of people a lot smarter than me have looked at this and run the numbers, and it doesn’t look good.”
The chamber will host the June workshop, intended to build more support for the idea. Schultz and chamber officials hope to develop a more specific plan by the end of this year so the Legislature can consider action as early as January.
Paying for the projects is another unknown. Some ideas include toll roads, a statewide sales tax for transportation projects, impact fees on new development and a higher gasoline tax. Supporters said they would likely explore those ideas in greater detail after cementing support for their accelerated construction plan.
At least one key figure in transportation funding is skeptical of what Schultz is advocating. Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said he isn’t eager to support a plan that would hike taxes. In fact, Biggs suggested tax cuts could boost the economy and increase tax revenue for transportation. That, along with money that growth generates, could fund new highway projects, he said. Biggs, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, also said the state should study toll roads.
Biggs said he’s skeptical of anything developed by supporters of Proposition 400, which he opposed because more than 30 percent of it goes toward rail and bus service. Biggs argued nearly all the money should go to highways and said funding shortfalls are a result of putting too much money toward transit.
“It seems to me that the same group of folks who want to have a state sales tax are the ones who brought us Proposition 400,” Biggs said. “There’s a lot of problems that are going to be unaddressed because of how that money is being allocated.”
Despite major differences, Biggs said he supports the idea of accelerating transportation projects. And that includes commuter rail service in the Valley.
Biggs is pushing to boost transportation funding $355 million this year, using money from the state’s budget surplus. That one-time jolt could speed up a considerable number of projects, he said.
Schultz welcomed the added money for transportation, but said the same type of boost would be needed every year, for years to come.
Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker said he supports building projects faster and adopting more of a statewide approach to transportation as urban areas grow together. Too many projects are done piecemeal, he said.
“We need to get together as a state now, and try to work on a long-term transportation plan that will get us to 2025, 2050,” Hawker said.
A key problem is in Pinal County, where growth has created enormous traffic jams but the economics of its rural and bedroom communities don’t provide enough funding for freeways. Schultz said the state will have to move quickly to fund projects there before new developments worsen gridlock.
“To think that we let one of our counties just sort of hang out there with their limited resources and not look at this in a holistic manner, in my view, is shortsighted,” he said.
Roc Arnett, president of the East Valley Partnership, said he’s eager to identify funding for Pinal County freeways. He also wants commuter rail soon, from Phoenix to Florence, and perhaps Tucson.
“It’s going to be 10 years before we get a commuter rail and we probably need it in the next three or four,” he said.