Transportation planning is never a quick process. That’s why the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) and the regional councils of government such as the Maricopa Association of Government create comprehensive transportation plans decades in advance.
The South Mountain Freeway has been in the works since 1985 when Maricopa County voters approved Proposition 300. This freeway is an integral component of a long-range transportation vision that connects the entire Valley. It is the final piece of the Loops 202 and 101 system that promises to enhance regional mobility, reduce commute times and move freight to its destination with significantly less congestion.
Why is the South Mountain Freeway necessary?
As we continue to recover from the Great Recession, population, housing and employment are beginning to grow again. Half of the growth for the entire metro region is expected to occur in the southeast and southwest Valley. These areas are doing an outstanding job of attractive high-value employers while still providing affordable family housing and an excellent quality of life. This is all great news, but the current freeway system is already overloaded. Commutes are growing longer and more frustrating. In 2012, the system could only support 84% of demand according to ADOT. Not surprisingly, as more people move in, the problem will only get worse. In fact, ADOT predicts the system will only be able to support 69% of demand by 2035 if the South Mountain Freeway is not built. Not only will the increased congestion impact the daily lives of those who live in or drive through the area, but it will also have a negative effect on the region’s ability to attract new job-creating businesses.
The $1.75 billion South Mountain Freeway project will be built under an innovative public private partnership. Three private firms have submitted bids to develop, construct and maintain the freeway for thirty years. This approach means lower costs for taxpayers and faster construction time. ADOT expects to select a contractor by the end of the year.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) issued a Record of Decision in March 2015, providing the final approval necessary for ADOT to begin the project. Freeway construction is expected to begin in 2016, with the freeway opening to traffic in late 2019 or early 2020.
Like many major transportation projects, the South Mountain Freeway has seen its share of controversy. Despite years of environmental impact studies and community outreach efforts, some groups continue to oppose the freeway. A coalition of area homeowners’ associations and environmental activists have made it clear that completely stopping the project is their goal. To that end, these groups filed suit to prevent ADOT from moving forward. After hearing oral arguments in late July, U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa denied the plaintiffs’ request for a pretrial preliminary injunction to stop ADOT from engaging in necessary pre-construction activities. For now, the project continues to move forward with acquisition of rights-of-way, contract procurement and completion of the design. Delaying these activities while the lawsuit moves forward would have cost Phoenix taxpayers $71 to $77 million. We are extremely pleased that Judge Humetewa is allowing the project to proceed on schedule.
As one of the nation’s most rapidly growing metropolitan areas, Phoenix needs a comprehensive transportation system that connects all corners of the Valley. The South Mountain Freeway is an indispensable part of that system. Without it, large portions of the southeast and southwest Valley will remain stuck in ever-increasing gridlock. This freeway represents an exciting opportunity to measurably improve mobility and provide a less congested future for residents and businesses.