Planners sketch out new interstate [from Phoenix area] to Las Vegas

Courtesy of AZCentral.

by Sean Holstege - Sept. 15, 2009 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

Few in the Valley have heard of Interstate 11, but support is gaining
strength in two states to connect Phoenix and Las Vegas with what
would be the first new interstate built in a quarter-century.

The route, fusing 225 miles of improved U.S. 93 with about 150 miles
of new freeway around the Valley, would strengthen the link between
two of the fastest-growing cities in the nation.

Supporters envision smoother Phoenix-area traffic and closer trade and
tourism links between Phoenix and Las Vegas. With a major bypass
around Phoenix, from I-10 near Casa Grande to U.S. 93 just north of
Wickenburg, I-11 would become a prime freight route from Mexico to Las
Vegas and beyond, promoters say.
But the project faces daunting hurdles.

The Phoenix-area bypass alone might cost up to $5 billion, and with no
money in sight, a toll road is already being discussed. Decades of
planning, studies and government approvals would be required. Even
early decisions are years away.

The project may never happen. Many highway plans have languished or
died. In 1960, the region's first long-range plan included a South
Mountain Freeway still being designed and a freeway parallel to
Camelback Road that got scrapped.

Nevertheless, earlier this month a major Valley developer in the
potential freeway's path formed a non-profit to propel the project.
Cities from Wickenburg to Las Vegas support I-11, along with U.S.
senators, regional governments, and state and federal transportation

"There isn't a north-south corridor. It's a very important corridor
for the national and even international scene," said Kent Cooper,
assistant director of the Nevada Department of Transportation.

How it began

The idea for Interstate 11 grew out of a local effort to accommodate
projected growth. In 2005, before the housing meltdown, West Valley
landowners armed with development rights swamped the Federal Highway
Administration with requests for I-10 interchanges.

Planners for the Maricopa Association of Governments were called in.
With the Valley's population forecast to double by 2050, MAG found
that I-10 would need 43 interchanges west of Loop 303 to keep up. The
extra traffic would make Arizona's most important highway impassable.

So, MAG studied other options.

In 2008, MAG's Regional Council accepted a first map showing a ribbon
of freeway winding north from I-10 near Arizona 85 and stretching
toward Wickenburg. It was named the Hassayampa Freeway.

Later this month, MAG's council will vote on a second plan routing the
Hassayampa Freeway south from I-10 and then curving east past the
Estrella Mountains to reconnect with I-10 near Casa Grande. The
freeway is part of $60 billion in Valley transportation improvements,
including mass transit, that MAG considers necessary in the next half-

Phoenix and Las Vegas are expected to continue growing.

"We do not see that stopping," said Cooper of the Nevada DOT.

Planners quickly saw the benefits of naming the route an interstate to
get federal funding. Interest grew at Arizona and Nevada
transportation departments.

The Arizona Department of Transportation broadened the region's
studies and launched a statewide long-range plan. It shows that by
2050, without new freeways, it will take Phoenix residents five hours
to get out of town.

Why now?

Several trends are aligning to add momentum to the I-11 idea.

• Highway improvements. A critical Hoover Dam bypass bridge is set to
open next year, removing a chokepoint on U.S. 93. ADOT has widened
large stretches of the route into a four-lane divided highway, enough
to meet federal interstate standards. The Nevada DOT has devoted
hundreds of millions of dollars to complete a freeway between the
Colorado River and Las Vegas.

• New state law. Gov. Jan Brewer signed a law allowing ADOT to enter
partnerships with private enterprise, a first step toward Arizona's
first toll road. The thinking is that an I-11 toll road would attract
freight haulers willing to pay to avoid Phoenix congestion.

• New federal law. The federal transportation spending bill expires
this fall. When it is renewed, Congress can increase states' highway
funding, create a new program or earmark money for specific projects.
I-11 supporters want an earmark for a key environmental study.

• Cross-border trade. Arizona is the gateway from Mexico for half the
fresh produce consumed in the western United States. Las Vegas depends
on I-15 and the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach for food and goods, but
West Coast ports and the freeways leading from them are getting
congested. Ongoing improvements at Arizona border crossings will make
crossings there more appealing.

• Vegas tourism. About 3 million people travel from Arizona to Las
Vegas every year, and half drive on U.S. 93, tourism officials say.

• Connections. President Barack Obama appointed former ADOT Director
Victor Mendez to head the Federal Highway Administration. Mendez was
involved in long-range planning and I-11 discussions before his

Is it realistic?

"People are not just talking about this project. They are doing it,"
said Tom Skancke, a nationally renowned transportation consultant who
represents the Las Vegas tourism industry. He said he expects I-11
work to start within 20 years because of public- and private-sector
backing in two states.

Transportation and planning officials say that 40 years is a more
realistic start date and that the work would happen in phases. Finding
the money and political support could prove tricky. Five years after
Maricopa County voters passed a countywide transportation tax, the
economy has forced MAG's board to scale back the measure's plans. A
future highway would pit the transportation needs of future residents
against those who live in the region now.

Nothing can happen on the I-11 idea until an environmental study,
expected to cost up to $7 million, is done.

ADOT Communications Director Matt Burdick said he expects the study to
begin within two years.

The project must be included on the state's 20-year project list, to
which money is assigned. In the meantime, private-sector backers are
making a push.

"If the private sector stepped up and said, 'We will dedicate the
right of way if you start the environmental study, ADOT would find the
money for it," Skancke said.

Tom Hennessey is general manager for Douglas Ranch, a 37,000-acre
tract west of the White Tanks slated for 110,000 homes, owned by
development firm El Dorado Holdings Inc. The firm is willing to donate
the right of way, he said.

Landholders, Buckeye and others last week formed a non-profit advocacy
called Connecting Arizona and Nevada, Delivering Opportunities.