Pinal County will welcome nearly 1 million new people in the next two decades with the latest home styles, fresh desert air — and, unless things change soon, two-lane roads clogged with traffic.
The problem is already apparent in the rural county that contains Apache Junction, Florence and Casa Grande, even as only a sliver of its projected growth has taken place.
So with nearly every road between Maricopa and Pinal counties becoming the site of frequent traffic jams, transportation officials are working on a $1.5 million study to identify new routes.
Nearly everybody involved with the study agrees the county needs to get a plan in place soon and start building roads.
"Our streets are getting pretty clogged," said Sandie Smith, D-District 2 of Gold Canyon, chairwoman of the Pinal County Board of Supervisors. "I don’t have anybody telling me we don’t need new roads. Even the most remote person has to get from their place to civilization, and they would like to do it as safely as possible."
The study includes public hearings, scheduled to begin in a few weeks, and will lead to recommendations in November. Its focus is on four potential roads:
• A U.S. 60 bypass from Apache Junction to Florence Junction, parallel to the existing four-lane highway.
• The Williams Gateway freeway, which would start at Loop 202 near the airport and extend east to U.S. 60 near Gold Canyon.
• A road parallel to Hunt Highway, running east from I-10 to Florence Junction.
• A road parallel to Ironwood Road that would stretch south from Apache Junction to Interstate 10 near Eloy.
Several counties paid for a transportation study in 2003 that identified these routes, but the Arizona Department of Transportation is taking a second look at that work because population growth has shot ahead of expectations since that study. The department is working on new population projections to see what types of roads are needed, said Diane Kresich, a regional planner at ADOT.
The study will recommend whether a freeway, expressway, arterial road — or perhaps nothing — is needed in each of the four areas. It will also suggest whether the county or state should build and maintain the road.
The study has significant limitations. It won’t say when the roads will be built, where the money comes from or even where they’ll go.
"These are not alignment studies," Kresich said. "We will not determine a precise location of any facility."
She urged Pinal County residents who see maps of the study not to jump to conclusions. The corridors are potentially miles-wide swaths where a road might go. Construction is years — and perhaps decades away. It could take years to determine time lines and alignments.
The ADOT study will go to the State Transportation Board in November fo r approval. That decision will lay the groundwork for future studies.
Some residents say Pinal County is in the slow lane when it comes to transportation planning. Thom Schuett said his experience with several Queen Creek advisory boards shows the region isn’t prepared for the flood of residents.
"Somewhere along the line we dropped the ball," Schuett said. "We were unable to take developers, landowners and government and say, ‘Where do you think things are going?’ It seems like we’re not planning, we’re reacting."
Schuett has noticed travel times have slowed in the last six months as he tries to go anywhere from his home in Queen Creek. Roads to Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler and Apache Junction are packed with cars or closed for construction, he said. Schuett, a management consultant, has noticed his business trips to Maricopa have grown from 40 minutes to 55.
"What’s happened in the last six or eight months is just staggering," Schuett said.
Smith acknowledged she’s exasperated at times with progress. But she said officials are following state laws involved with planning, and that they’re determined not to follow Maricopa County’s example with freeway planning.
Phoenix had the least number of freeway miles for a community of its size in the 1980s because of poor planning and a failure to get public support for highways. Some freeways were built decades behind the demand — and at inflated costs because ADOT had to buy so many homes and businesses.
"That’s a good lesson to not do," Smith said.
Smith said she wouldn’t approve development on state trust land near Apache Junction without first reserving land for freeways.
But some development could already have an effect on freeway construction, Kresich said.
So many subdivisions have been approved near Coolidge that ADOT planners will likely shift the corridor to avoid buying homes and splitting neighborhoods.
"The line is moving further to the east all the time," Kresich said.
ADOT and county officials agree neither the state nor Pinal County can afford on their own to build whatever is recommended.
State and county funds will pay for the roads, including a half-cent sales tax that funds transportation projects in Pinal County. The county will probably ask voters to renew that tax next year, as it expires in 2007.
The tax may not add enough to pay for the projects, county officials said. They’ve asked ADOT to also consider toll roads in their study, though that possibility won’t be explored in depth at this time.
The study will likely help Pinal County by showing a strong demand for new roads, said Roc Arnett, executive director of the East Valley Partnership. Previous population studies have been "woefully inadequate" for Pinal County, Arnett said, but he expects this study will boost the numbers and help make the roads among Arizona’s top transportation priorities.
"It’s absolutely essential that we plan these corridors now," Arnett said. "Even though we put them on the map now, it may take 10, 12, 15 years to build them."
Open houses on Pinal County corridor definition study
• 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. March 30, Peralta Trail Elementary School, 10965 E. Peralta Trail Road, Gold Canyon
• 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. April 6, Apache Junction City Hall, 300 E. Superstition Blvd.
• 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. April 7, Central Arizona College, Signal Peal Campus, M Building, Room 101, 8470 N. Overfield Road, Coolidge
• 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. April 11, Queen Creek Town Hall, 22350 S. Ellsworth Road
• 6 to 8 p.m. April 13, Chandler Senior Center, 202 E. Boston Street