South Mountain Freeway nears opening, Arizona officials celebrate

ADOT anticipates full use for traffic by end of 2019

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The South Mountain Freeway is almost here to use.

Gov. Doug Ducey and other Arizona officials convened Wednesday morning to kick off the impending opening of the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway, also known as the Congressman Ed Pastor Freeway.

However, officials didn’t announce an opening date. But they promise the freeway will open before the end of the year. Including today, Dec. 18, there are 14 days until the end of 2019.

“As many more people choose Arizona, we’re making sure our infrastructure remains some of the best in America,” Mr. Ducey said. “I also want to point out that safety will be a top priority on this new freeway. That’s why we budgeted and included an additional $6 million to hire new DPS patrol officers to be on this project.”

The South Mountain Freeway is a 22-mile and $1.7 billion project that has been under construction since September 2016, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation.

The freeway will connect the Interstate 10/Loop 202 SanTan Freeway interchange in the East Valley to the I-10/59th Avenue area in the West Valley, providing a direct route for drivers to avoid travel through downtown Phoenix. It also provides freeway access to communities like Laveen and the Komatke portion of the Gila River Indian Community, and even nearby Vee Quiva Hotel and Casino.

In each direction, there are three general-purpose lanes and one HOV lane, as well as emergency lanes. Along the route, there are 40 bridges, 15 interchanges and a pedestrian bridge north of Broadway Road.

Officials say the 22-mile extension is projected to carry about 117,000 vehicles each day in 2020, with nearly 190,000 vehicles daily by 2035.

According to officials, the South Mountain Freeway project is the largest single freeway project in state history and finished three years early with $100 million in savings through an innovative partnership. Expansion has been over 30 years in the making, with the freeway having been included in regional plans since 1985.

Wednesday’s kickoff was also in homage to Congressman Ed Pastor, who died in 2018. Dec. 18 is the wedding anniversary for Mr. Pastor and his wife, Verma. His family was in attendance.

Joining Mr. Ducey on the new freeway bridges over the Salt River were Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego; Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community; Arizona Department of Transportation Director John Halikowski; Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell, chairman of the Maricopa Association of Governments; Karla Petty, Arizona division administrator for the Federal Highway Administration; and Michael Bidwill, president of the Arizona Cardinals. Other legislators, local officials, and transportation stakeholders were in attendance.

“This freeway is part of a cog system, and when one section functions better, our entire freeway will be better,” said Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego. “You will see benefits from this freeway whether you live in this section of Phoenix or whether you’re coming from the East Valley or the west.”

She also highlighted that park-and-rides will be near the freeway for bus users.

“So whether you’re a pedestrian, a driver, a bus rider, you have something to celebrate in today’s bridge,” Ms. Gallego said.

ADOT says the overall project is scheduled for substantial completion into 2020 as crews complete rubberized asphalt paving, construct the 32nd Street interchange — which was not included in the original design — build a pedestrian bridge, finish a 6-mile multi-use path in Ahwatukee, install technology and complete other work.

Much of that will have minimal impact on traffic, ADOT says, but other elements of construction, such as rubberized asphalt paving on Interstate 10, will require some closures and restrictions.

Jon Szekely of Avondale is among those excited for the freeway’s opening, as he is getting ready to head to Texas to visit family for the holidays.

“We’re very excited about the new 202 highway opening because we have friends and relatives that live in the East Valley area that it will be a lot easier to get to from Avondale where we live and a heck of a lot more time saving and convenient when we drive back to Texas where our daughter’s family lives near Dallas,” he said via Facebook Messenger.

Phoenix resident Tonia Vickery is a Realtor in Peoria and says the feedback she hears on the street, in her business and from her boyfriend — who commutes to downtown Phoenix — is that they hope the South Mountain Freeway relieves some of the congestion on I-10.

“Personally, though, I feel our growth has outpaced our freeway infrastructure and we are putting band-aids on bigger issues,” she said over Facebook Messenger. “But any little bit of relief on I-10 will be welcome. Our traffic congestion, I feel, is going to get worse and become a staple of living in this City. Hopefully this 202 will cut down on the truckers going through the City, they can now go around... and that will help a bit.”

For those using navigation apps in their vehicles or on their mobile devices, Google told the Daily Independent that their team is aware of the new freeway extension, and they have plans to make it visible on Google Maps once the route is open to the public.

ADOT says traffic in Ahwatukee has been using the freeway mainline in a temporary configuration, with two lanes in each direction and a speed limit of 40 mph, until the freeway opens.

The Loop 202 wasn’t the only freeway getting love as part of the expansion. With changes coming in the area of I-10 and 59th Avenue, officials widened and repaved lanes between 43rd and 75th avenues. New access roads also flank both sides of I-10 in that area.

Officials said the extension is the first freeway in Arizona built using a public-private partnership, or P3, that combines the design, construction and maintenance into a single contract. The approach allowed the freeway to be opened three years earlier than if it had been built using traditional bidding, saving over $100 million.

Private developer Connect 202 Partners will be responsible for maintaining the freeway and ensuring the safety of the traveling public for 30 years, according to ADOT.

Talks of a South Mountain Freeway dates to 1983, when a highway along the south side of South Mountain — then dubbed the Southwest Loop Highway — was introduced. Since then, this transportation corridor has been approved by voters two times as part of the Maricopa Association of Governments’ Regional Transportation Plan through Proposition 300 in 1985 and Proposition 400 in 2004.

The freeway wasn’t fully met with agreement, as some in and near the Komatke area of the Gila River Indian Community opposed the expansion from running through sacred land along the foothills of South Mountain. The tribe waged an unsuccessful court fight to block construction, according to The Associated Press. A coalition of environmental and community groups also opposed construction of the new freeway.

Numerous homes were purchased and demolished along the freeway route.

As Valley-goers and other motorists anticipate the full opening, safety remains a focal point for officials.

“I ask you as users of this new freeway to remember you have a role to play in highway safety as well,” Karla Petty said. “Please always remember to do your part to make our Arizona highways safe by being safe as a driver. Buckle up, both young and old. Be attentive, no texting. And do not drive impaired.”

What else in the Valley?

ADOT officials continue to make improvements along Loop 101 in the North and southeast Valleys. The changes have brought about weekly road restrictions in the areas between 19th Avenue and 7th Street.

Officials also recently completed an environmental study for the proposed State Route 30 in the Southwest Valley. The 13-mile highway would connect Sarival Avenue near MC 85 with the South Mountain Freeway.

Also in the West Valley, construction continues on the Northern Parkway expansion from Dysart Road to 111th Avenue. Plans call for the freeway to extend towards the Loop 101 Agua Fria and then to US 60/Grand Avenue.

On Wednesday, U.S. Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ) and U.S. House Rep. Greg Stanton (D-AZ) introduced a bill to accelerate the development of Interstate 11 in Arizona. The legislation would provide new federal assistance to complete the required Tier II Environmental Impact Study for segments of the project, according to a release.

Suggested alternatives show the future I-11 running through Buckeye near Sun Valley Parkway, extending north towards Wickenburg, and into Nevada where I-11 is already operational in the Las Vegas area.

“With 2020 right around the corner, I’m looking forward to all the future collaborations that will serve all Arizonans,” Mr. Ducey said.

Lighting up the freeway

As part of the celebrations, Gila River Hotels & Casinos will light up a 120-foot tall pylon at 5:45 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 21, as well as display promotional and brand messaging for its Vee Quiva location that can be seen from the roadway. 

The Loop 202 expansion provides travelers with a new path to entertainment with an exit leading to Vee Quiva, known as “Vee Quiva Way.” Also, people will be able to use Loop 202 to access all three Gila River properties — Wild Horse Pass and Lone Butte in Chandler, and Vee Quiva in Laveen — a 20-minute drive between all three, according to officials.

The pylon was fabricated and installed by Young Electric Sign Co., taking about 1,300 hours for the installation, according to a release. The casino letters on the pylon alone stand 8 feet tall and are made up of over 5,000 light bulbs.

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