Transportation

Long wait for I-11 to Vegas continues

Lack of funding, long planning process keeps project progress slow

Posted 9/8/20

Federal and state officials have long wanted to connect Phoenix and Las Vegas as part of a long interstate that runs from Mexico to Canada.

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Transportation

Long wait for I-11 to Vegas continues

Lack of funding, long planning process keeps project progress slow

Posted

It’s now hard to believe that Interstate 10 did not completely connect Phoenix to Los Angeles until the late 1980s.

Perhaps one day, decades from now, people will have the same disbelief that there wasn’t a direct freeway between Phoenix and Las Vegas for the longest time.

Tourism officials say more than 3 million people drive between the two cities each year. That’s not to mention the amount of commercial traffic between the two cities, which now must rely on U.S. 93 for most of the trip between Arizona and Nevada’s largest cities.

Federal and state officials have long wanted to connect the two cities as part of a long interstate that runs from Mexico to Canada.

But Interstate 11 has no funding for its design and completion and that could be decades away — if ever.

“There is no funding available for this facility,” said Audra Koester Thomas, the transportation planning program manager for the Maricopa Association of Governments. “That’s probably one of the notes to make. There is no identifiable funding to build it.“

That doesn’t mean officials don’t want it or need it.

State and regional officials in Arizona are still in the planning stages and working to determine the best corridor for the 280-mile stretch between Wickenburg and Nogales, with the alignment from Wickenburg to Vegas pretty much set along U.S. 93.

Federal transportation officials have long wanted a route between Mexico and Canada to take the pressure of Interstate 5, which runs through California, Oregon and Washington, and Interstate 15, which travels through California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Montana.

In the preferred option, so far, for Arizona’s portion, I-11 skirts  both Phoenix and Tucson to give more of a bypass route for commercial traffic.

It’s part of the newest interstate plan since the last one was built in 1983. It marked the end of the “Interstate Era,” which President Dwight Eisenhower launched in 1956.

“The growth [of Phoenix and Las Vegas] came after the interstate highway system was really set 50 or 60 years ago,” Ms. Koester Thomas said.

A map shows the current preferred route of Interstate 11 to the west of the Phoenix metroplex.
A map shows the current preferred route of Interstate 11 to the west of the Phoenix metroplex.

History lesson

Initial ideas for the Canamex Highway go back to the 1930s.

A story in the Decatur Daily Review in May 1935 talks about a highway that would connect Quebec to Mexico City. But that would have likely skipped Arizona altogether.

A Canamex route with Arizona in mind has been in the planning stages since the early 1990s.

The 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act outlined the Canamex Trade Corridor, and it was part of the North American Free Trade Agreement two years later.

Congress defined the route as part of the National Highway Systems Designation Act in 1995.

The original plans called for four possible routes, including Loop 303, which was then just a two-lane highway and not a freeway like today.

That was the only proposed route near Surprise, but then-Mayor Joan Shafer and the Surprise City Council vociferously objected to having big trucks barreling down the narrow roadway.

Also, hundreds of Sun City Grand and other Surprise residents sent in letters of protest to the Maricopa Association of Government.

Alternative ideas included the north-south portion of Sun Valley Parkway as well as Vulture Mine and Eagle Eye roads.

In April 2001, the Maricopa Association of Governments voted to use Vulture Mine connected with Wickenburg Road to Interstate 10 as the preferred route to complete the corridor through Phoenix.

That route was 10 miles west of Buckeye, which authorities felt was closer than Eagle Eye, which is 20 miles farther out.

That route roughly goes along the 335th Avenue alignment.

In 2005, Valley leaders pushed the Federal Highway Administration for more interchanges on Interstate 10.

To alleviate some expected growth, MAG unveiled plans for a new freeway stretch between I-10 and Wickenburg in 2008.

Plans called for routing the so-called “Hassayampa Freeway” west of the White Tank Mountains to I-10 near Arizona 85 and then turning it east around the Estrella Mountains to connect with I-10 near Casa Grande.

In September 2009, officials expanded those plans into a 225-mile interstate to link Phoenix and Las Vegas with 150 miles of new freeway across the Valley.

It called for improving U.S. 93, which makes up most of the trip between Las Vegas and Wickenburg, as well as Interstate 40 in northern Arizona.

At the time, the estimates for the cost just to build the bypass around Phoenix were $5 billion.

A toll road was even part of the initial plans to help pay for the project. Planners said they thought truckers should pay a premium to avoid the congested Phoenix traffic.

Where should it go

In 2013, Congress officially designated I-11. A year later, the Arizona Department of Transportation installed four “Future I-11 Corridor” signs along U.S. 93.

Nevada began its construction of I-11 in 2015. The $318-million stretch of nearly 23 miles took three years to complete.

The Daily Spectrum in St. George, Utah, reported the construction created 4,000 jobs in the region.

For the stretch near Phoenix, Ms. Koester Thomas said MAG officials have been sitting in on ADOT’s study and offering its feedback.

“We’re really letting ADOT facilitate it and we don’t necessarily have an opinion [on the route],” Ms. Koester Thomas said.

The current alignment has it running through the Rainbow Valley area of Goodyear and along the Gila River area in Buckeye.

Ms. Koester Thomas said the western cities and towns will receive the most impact from a potential I-11, especially Buckeye, Goodyear and Wickenburg.

A closer up map shows where the proposed Interstate 11 could run through the West Valley, including Buckeye and Goodyear.
A closer up map shows where the proposed Interstate 11 could run through the West Valley, including Buckeye and Goodyear.

“As a major north-south interstate highway, the I-11 corridor will enhance the quality of life for our region in many ways,” Goodyear Mayor Georgia Lord said. “It will reduce congestion on Interstate 10, as well as improve access for future development, particularly in Goodyear’s southern region. We anticipate that it will have a very positive economic impact on our city.”

Ironically, Surprise officials changed their views over the years and wish the city never pushed the highway away.

Phoenix, however, won’t see much benefit economically because I-11 theoretically would take some traffic off Interstates 10 and 17 for those who want to bypass Phoenix all together.

“It’s being planned to bypass certain areas,” said Laura Douglas, a communications manager with ADOT. “It’s definitely being planned as a north-south interstate corridor, serving all of those regions as a high-capacity route.”

Next steps

ADOT is awaiting the final report of the environmental study it submitted last year as part of the process of determining where the 2,000-foot-wide corridor will run between Wickenburg and Nogales --- or if no highway should be built at all.

The study factors in planning and development, projected employment growth and the number of people moving into the area.

The study team from ADOT and the Federal Highway Administration doesn’t have a timeline for the overall construction and completion of I-11.

Initially, officials said the interstate may take 40 years to finish with work done in phases.

“There are a lot of factors at play,” Ms. Douglas said.

Some factors include acquiring funding for the design and construction of the new segments as well as building out U.S. 93 north of Wickenburg to interstate standards.

“It’s a process that will take several years to build it from the Arizona southern border to the northern border,” Ms. Douglas said.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval makes remarks during the 2015 groundbreaking of I-11 in Nevada.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval makes remarks during the 2015 groundbreaking of I-11 in Nevada.

There’s also no expiration date on the studies that are currently been done or completed in recent years because the studies themselves factor in long-term planning.

“This was designed to be part of our long-range planning process,” Ms. Douglas said. “It’s not something that expires immediately if you don’t start on it.”

With or without funding for construction, planners plan to have their option picked by the end of 2021. Those options include a no-build one, where nothing would change.

“We’re studying both options at this point,” Ms. Douglas said.

ADOT received thousands of comments when the draft environmental report went out for public view last summer.

“It’s been on a lot of people’s radar in terms of benefits and some of the negatives,” Ms. Douglas said.

One of the problems for I-11 funding, however, is it’s just one of numerous items on the priority list for Arizona transportation projects.

“There are a lot of transportation needs throughout Arizona,” Ms. Douglas said. “We just simply don’t have enough funding to meet all those needs. It would be wonderful if we could build everything on everybody’s wish list.”

“We need to prioritize, and we need to long-range plan.”

Another problem with funding for I-11 is the cost of it can’t even be narrowed down much.

Ms. Douglas said the estimated costs to build I-11 from Nogales to Wickenburg alone would be within the range of approximately $3.1 billion to $7.3 billion. 

“If you’re talking about how many years and how many billions of dollars when you’re talking southern border to the northern one, I couldn’t even tell you how many billions of dollars,” Ms. Douglas said.

Editor’s note: Jason Stone can be reached at jstone@newszap.com.

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