More than a decade ago, plans were adopted for a 19-mile-long interstate cutoff that would link I-10 and I-19 south of Tucson. To be located a mile and a half north of the existing Sahuarita Road, and estimated to cost at least $130 million, the new limited-access highway was going to shorten trips by 12 miles for drivers not heading into Tucson.
When first proposed, however, the cutoff didn't take into consideration Mexican truck traffic. Thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, the number of heavy semi-trailers going to and from Nogales could enormously increase.
According to Larry Maucher, senior project manager for the Arizona Department of Transportation's Tucson office, "The study [done 11 years ago] said the Sahuarita project wouldn't be needed for another 27 years. But we don't have enough updated information on NAFTA to know what the truck usage will be. There is a study underway now to determine that. But people involved with State Route 82 have found a report which indicates that NAFTA could increase truck traffic from Mexico by tenfold within 10 years."
Many people who live near SR 82, which is a shortcut between the interstate highways running through the beautiful rolling countryside from Nogales to Sonoita, fear this increase in traffic will harm the environment while helping to destroy their quiet, rural way of life. They have worked for years to funnel the trucks elsewhere. Maucher agrees with them, insisting, "SR 82 should remain a scenic route."
For that to happen, while also diverting many trucks away from central Tucson, the Sahuarita cutoff seemed like an ideal solution. Maucher says that years ago he looked at several optional locations for the roadway, and the one selected was the best.
But then a not-so-funny thing happened. In 1995 the fledgling town of Sahuarita approved plans for Rancho Sahuarita, a huge master-planned community that promised to put the little burg on the map. Unfortunately, the proposed corridor for the cutoff ran right through the new housing project, so the Town Council ignored the adopted roadway proposal when it approved the development plan.
Jim Stahle, Sahuarita's current town manager, explains that "there was no funding then for the road and it was just a paper drawing. [In the last six years] the town has seen the [housing] development happen. At this point, the town doesn't want to see the corridor cut the master planned community in half!"
Instead, Stahle says Sahuarita is interested in moving the corridor one mile further north, close to the existing Pima Mine Road. Maucher, his anger at what has happened barely hidden, says that soil conditions for road building in that area are lousy. In frustration, he adds that the town now wants another corridor study conducted for this possible new alignment. He thinks that would take three years and cost $3 million.
FURTHER NORTH, ADOT is about to begin a corridor study along Houghton Road between Sahuarita and Tanque Verde roads. Also to be included will be portions of Golf Links and Alvernon Way.
The $1.5 million study will be led by the consulting firm AMEC. Alex Batt, local branch manager for the company, thinks it should begin in January and last 18 months.
The analysis will include predicting future traffic demand based on full buildout of the burgeoning southeast side, where forecasts predict tens of thousands of people to be living in the coming decades. In addition, the report will determine the ultimate number of lanes needed for the major streets in the area, even though they may not be built that way for 25 years or more. A phased plan for short-term roadway construction that would accommodate these final projects is also to be included.
Gary Oaks, transportation planner for the city of Tucson, says the study will answer the question, "Is Houghton Road a viable state highway?" That is important, he says, so future funding sources for roadway improvements can be determined.
ADOT's Maucher listed three possible options, which he labeled "stabs in the dark," for Houghton Road. One would be an eight-lane arterial street, the second a six-lane limited-access roadway, and the third a fully-controlled, four-lane highway.
Maucher insists the state won't propose only a partial solution for this project, a recommendation that would limit the amount of land designated for the future roadway. "The common practice in road building is to go back after 20 years to obtain more right-of-way," he says, "but that disrupts people. On this project we may need 250 to 400 feet of right-of-way to be set aside during the rezoning process compared to the normal 100 or 120 feet. But we want to get sufficient right-of-way for full buildout. If that doesn't happen, we will have beautiful medians on Houghton Road."
While this planning process seems straightforward, it may become complicated because Pima County is also preparing to study three miles of Houghton Road between Speedway and Golf Links, with plans to eventually widen that stretch to four lanes at a cost of approximately $20 million. County transportation department spokeswoman Annabelle Quihuis says this analysis won't begin until late next year and that ADOT hasn't contacted them about their pending study.
Thus, portions of Houghton Road could be "studied" simultaneously by both ADOT and Pima County. When asked whether it wouldn't make sense to have his company do both reports, Alex Batt from AMEC diplomatically replied, "It would make sense to combine the projects, but it is up to the county. I suspect they will go through their normal selection process because they just don't hand out contracts. But there would be a big savings and it would add value to the county project."
EVEN FURTHER NORTH, plans for widening two miles of Tangerine Road to four lanes between First Avenue and La Cañada Drive are proceeding. Paul Nzomo, engineering division manager for the town of Oro Valley, says the $8.5 million project may be under construction by next summer.
Tangerine is another roadway that was originally intended to be a much wider, fully controlled-access facility. But ADOT's Maucher says local jurisdictions didn't reserve the required right-of-way through the rezoning process. So at this point the Tangerine Road widening is strictly an Oro Valley project. All ADOT is doing is finalizing an environmental update for the entire length of the roadway.
Oro Valley's Nzomo disagrees with Maucher's assessment. He says the town has been requiring the dedication of 300 feet of right-of-way for an eventual wider road, and next year's planned improvements are consistent with that proposal. "We're all on the same page," about this project, he insists.