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Cost of I-10 expansion between Phoenix and Tucson to go up

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By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- Arizona taxpayers could end up having to shell out another $360 million if they want to smooth car and truck traffic between Tucson and Phoenix.

Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said Thursday he is preparing legislation to have the state provide that cash after a request for a federal grant to widen a section of Interstate 10 was rejected. He said using the funds the state has in its coffers ensures the project will be built, something he said is justified given the number of Arizonans affected by the fact that a 26-mile stretch is now just two lanes in each direction.

But Shope said his measure will be written with a sweetener for his colleagues who might otherwise balk at ponying up additional cash. It says the dollars the state puts up would go back into the treasury -- where they could be used for other priorities -- if and when some new source of federal dollars could be found.

Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland said that having the state front the funds fits into the scenario where there would be another bid for the grant.

"But we need to start moving on it now,'' he said of the construction project. "We can't wait for us to get all the money and begin the process.''

The need for state funds comes after Arizona's bid for a share of National Infrastructure Project Assistance was rejected.

What appears to have happened, Shope said, is federal highway officials were more interested in funding what he called "green transportation'' for this round of grants. That might include things like alternatives to driving, like bikeways.

"If we were talking about a central Phoenix or central Tucson project it obviously would have been more helpful,'' he said, versus "a 26-mile stretch in the middle of the desert.''

Rep. Teresa Martinez, R-Casa Grande, was more blunt in her comments about her feelings about why the state lost those federal dollars.

"To not fund an interstate because it does not have bike paths, because it doesn't have a trail?'' she asked.

"That's ridiculous,'' Martinez said. "If the Biden administration thinks that the I-10 interstate is not as important as a bike path I think they have misjudged the situation.''

But it's not clear that Arizona lost out because its proposal wasn't "green enough.''

Information provided by the office of U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly shows that of the nine grants that were funded this year, five were interstate expansion projects. And two actually were for widening stretches of I-10, one in California and the other in Louisiana.

It may also be the Arizona ask was just too large.

The California grant was for $60 million and Louisiana got $150 million. And there was only $1.1 billion available this year.

Less clear is whether the rejection by the U.S. Department of Transportation will delay the scheduled 2026 completion of the project -- and whether Shope can convince colleagues, who voted just last year to kick in $400 million, to pony up additional dollars.

For its part, the Arizona Department of Transportation isn't saying much. Spokesman Luis Lopez said his agency has not received official notification of the status of its grant application.

The state has been widening sections of the interstate, which stretches from Santa Monica, Calif. to Jacksonville, Fla., for years. But the last section has been an issue.

Shope, who sponsored last year's $400 million appropriation, said some of that had to do with the fact that the stretch, from Queen Creek Road on the edge of Chandler to State Route 287 outside of Casa Grande, runs through the Gila River Indian Community.

He said some of that was residual bad feelings from the tribe which felt it didn't have any say when I-10 was cut through the reservation. Now, Shope said, Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the community, has been a participant.

Last year's $400 million appropriation had little trouble getting enacted, with a 27-1 vote in the Senate and 55-1 in the House, as the state was flush with cash.

That was the result of a 17 percent increase in revenues in the 2022 fiscal year. But legislative budget staffers predict that will moderate to 6 percent this year -- and just 2 percent the year after that.

But Shope said he hopes to convince colleagues that this isn't just a Pinal County problem.

He said probably half of the residents of the Casa Grande area with jobs drive daily into Maricopa County.

"When they do that, they drop their sales tax dollars into Maricopa County,'' Shope said.

He also figures that the road links the three largest counties in the state, where more than three-quarters of the residents live.

And Martinez said the road is used by more than just Pinal County residents. Then there's the commerce aspect of it.

"If people in Maricopa want their Amazon packages or groceries in the grocery store, Interstate 10 doesn't just benefit people in Pinal County,'' she said.

Kelly said he shares the view of the importance of this project.

"Arizonans rely on the I-10 to connect them to jobs, educational opportunities and their families, which is why improving and expanding this highway is still a top priority for me,'' he said in a prepared statement.

The guarantee of a refund to taxpayers if a federal grant comes through is based on the premise that Arizona will have more success the second time around.

"I hope so,'' McFarland said.

"I think we'll learn from the first one,'' he continued. "And, hopefully, we'll get some feedback from the feds hopefully as to what we may have not done right in the first application.''

McFarland also called it "pretty normal'' for applicants not to get federal grants the first time they ask for it.

An aide to Kelly said the senator is waiting for state officials to be briefed "on why projects were or were not funded this year'' to figure out how to get the grant moving forward.

Shope said Arizona may have something else working for it in its bid for federal dollars: Newly elected Republican Congressman Juan Ciscomani was placed on the House Appropriations Committee. "I think that's a very good thing,'' he said.

Shope also said he understands if the feds are looking to fund alternatives for transit aside from more pavement.

"I don't believe that just the three lanes (in each direction) alone is going to solve the long-term problem that this is going to be,'' he said. And part of that, Shope said, is the fact that the situation will become more than the current rush-hour pattern, with heavy northbound traffic in the morning and the reverse in the evening.

For example, he said Lucid Motors which is now operating in Casa Grande already has upwards of 5,000 employees. And many, Shope said, are driving in from the Southeast Valley of Maricopa County.

"You're going to have the same situation with Nikola,'' he said, which is expanding its truck manufacturing operation in Coolidge. And Shope noted that Procter & Gamble selected Coolidge as the location for its next manufacturing plant.

"So you're going to have cross-traffic going either way, as opposed to just directional,'' he said.

So far, though, intercity rail in Arizona has largely gotten no farther than studies.

Amtrak last year unveiled a 15-year expansion plan to connect communities in 25 states, including trips between Tucson and Phoenix with stops in Marana, Coolidge, Queen Creek and Tempe, with extensions out to Avondale and Buckeye.

Stephen Gardner, Amtrak president, estimated the line would attract 200,000 annual riders.