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Proposed I-11 highway still has many miles to go to become reality

In her centennial-themed State of the State speech this year, Gov. Jan Brewer highlighted Arizonans’ myriad infrastructure improvements during the past 100 years, such as the Central Arizona Project, Roosevelt Dam and the O’Callaghan-Tillman Memorial Bridge.

She also called for haste in building the next project, which is estimated to cost more than $30 billion when it’s fully completed: an interstate highway between the only two major cities in West not connected by such a route — Phoenix and Las Vegas.

“Now is the time to add another monument to federal-state cooperation, the future interstate highway linking Phoenix and Las Vegas — the I-11,” Brewer said to a jam-packed House of Representatives Jan. 9. “It will connect two of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country… we must not wait.”

Brewer’s urgent call, combined with state transportation planners’ support for the proposed corridor, would indicate that residents can’t be too far off from cruising on a high-speed, four-lane interstate from Phoenix to Las Vegas. However, like visions of hitting a jackpot in Sin City, the proposed I-11 is much closer to being a dream than reality, for now.

Planners face a tall task when undertaking a project of this magnitude, and the proposed I-11 is no exception. The route, sometimes referred to as the Canamex Corridor, is planned to eventually cover 1,440 miles, from the U.S. — Canada border in Washington State south through western Nevada to Las Vegas, then through western Arizona to Phoenix, and then south through Tucson to the border with Mexico.

To build the project, estimated at $30 billion to $40 billion by the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG), planners must find money. That hasn’t happened yet.

“Neither MAG nor the state has identified funding in their long-range plan,” says John Halikowski, director of the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT). “We have to have it in there before we can proceed.”

(Map provided by Maricopa Association of Governments)

Studies, studies

Right now, planning is in the conceptual stage. It hasn’t been determined by a study that there is a need for the corridor. But there is support.

“Projects like this bring not just jobs for the construction itself, but they promote commerce, tourism and trade across the United States,” Halikowski says. “Over the next 50 years, you need a route to move not only freight, but people.”

ADOT is putting out a request for proposals in March or April to do a $2.5 million preliminary engineering study, funded by $1 million from Arizona and $1.5 million from Nevada. The study, which will take approximately two years, will determine if the highway is needed.

“What’s being looked at now is a ‘purpose and need’ study to look at the I-11 corridor in Arizona and Nevada and say ‘what is it that we have?’ Where is it that we need to go? Let’s get a plan in place so we can actually do the studies that we need to do so we can get this funded,’” says Bob Hazlett, senior engineer with MAG. “You can’t really advance it to an environmental stage unless you know how you’re going to pay for it.”

Even at this point, planners only generally know where they’d like the highway to go. The studies are a vital part of the much larger planning process.

“Before you do these studies, nobody knows where the route will go,” Halikowski says. “One thing you don’t know when you do these studies is what you’re going to find. There are 16 to 18 factors that go into the determination.”

When and if the plan does advance to the “environmental stage” the costs go up again. Halikowski estimates the cost of this next step — a full-blown environmental impact study of the proposed portion of the route from Las Vegas through Phoenix and down to Mexico — to be between $7 million and $10 million.

Regardless of what such a study might say, Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, isn’t likely to support the project.

“We haven’t taken a specific position on this project, but the concerns we have for the I-11 freeway are the concerns we have with most freeways,” she says. “A big one is habitat fragmentation. We’ve seen problems with bighorn sheep and pronghorn and a variety of animals that either don’t cross roads or if they do cross, they get whacked.”

In the grander scheme, Bahr says she would like to see the state’s entire development direction changed. She says using projects like the proposed I-11 as economic drivers is an “outdated” approach.

New rules

In April 2011, the federal government, which plays a major part in financing interstates and large highway construction projects, slightly changed the rules by which a state can use federal money to do an environmental impact study. Now, state transportation planners need to have some type of reasonable funding, plus assurances identified in their long-range transportation plans that a project is actually going to get built.

“In the past we’d go out and find the money for the study and do it, whether we had any funding identified to build the project or not, we would do it just because it was an interesting idea, or somebody wanted us to do it and we thought maybe we needed to get it done to look at the future,” Halikowski says.

The new rules made ADOT reassess how it will move forward on projects in the future, including I-11. “We’re going have to have to do more of a two-step than a single-step process,” Halikowski says.

Although the new rules may slow the process a bit, Halikowski says the agency understands why they were put into place. “It’s logical. If this was your own budget at your own house, you would think the same thing. If you didn’t have reasonable assuredness that you could fund this project, you would wait,” he says.

Political will

Even if the studies indicate a route is needed and environmentally feasible, Hazlett of MAG says there’s no predicting the speed at which the federal government will approve a new interstate. It all comes down to stoking and maintaining political will for the project.

“A lot of this is going to tie back to political will to make it happen. Look at I-73 in South Carolina, folks there really got behind it and it moved pretty fast,” Hazlett says. “But they have been trying for 25 years to get I-69 in Indiana extended. The political will wasn’t always there. They just got their record of decision on it and are finally breaking ground.”

For Hazlett, the question of political will is tied to the finite and continuously shrinking pot of money states have for such projects. “Does the state of Arizona want to move forward with it or do we have too many other needs, wants and desires that would supplant I-11?”

I-11 is born

The idea for I-11 started cropping up in late 2008, when Hazlett and his colleagues at MAG, the regional planning agency for the metropolitan Phoenix area, began thinking about not just Valley transportation needs, but the needs of those travelling to the Valley.

“Here we are planning a world-class freeway and transit system in the Valley, but we weren’t really paying attention to how people were going to get to us,” Hazlett says. “We started connecting the dots and said, we’re (Phoenix and Las Vegas) connected only by a two-lane road, what’s up with that?”

As they began looking at adding to the state transportation framework, which looks at all conceivable transportation projects over a decades-long timeline without regard to cost, they took the first step by adding in the proposed I-11. Now, Hazlett says the route needs to be added to the Statewide Transportation Plan, which covers projects for 20 years and the Transportation Improvement Plan, which covers the next five years of projects. But, to be added to the plans, projects must be funded.  That has not happened yet for I-11.

The money monster

Again, the discussion comes back to money. Getting the route designated as an actual interstate will help, according to Halikowski. And that appears to be on the horizon. The U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s surface transportation reauthorization bill S1813 specifically changes references from U.S. 93 in Arizona and Nevada to “Interstate Route I-11.” That doesn’t mean it officially exists as a U.S. interstate, but it helps to push things in that direction, Halikowski says.

Another partial solution to financing the route is making portions “user-financed” — also known as a toll road. Halikowski says there is no definitive answer as to whether the public would support the route by paying tolls to use it, but the idea will be considered.

“Certainly it’s going to be part of the discussion,” he says. “I think we’re just not quite there yet where we can say, ‘yes there’s public support or not to toll it.’”

Ultimately, there are still many more questions than answers for the proposed I-11. Planners are waiting for study results to say what the economic impact of the project could be.

Halikowski points to other freeway projects as an indication that economic development will likely follow. “You see a lot of economic development go in with these projects, like the 101 in the East Valley.”

For Hazlett, connecting Phoenix and Las Vegas is a can’t-lose proposition.

“My gut says that this makes a lot of sense from the standpoint that here we have the two fastest growing metropolitan areas in the nation, and we were only connected by a two-lane road,” he says. “With the opening of the Hoover Dam bypass bridge, which was built to interstate standards, doesn’t it make sense to start connecting up the cities with a red, white and blue shield?”

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