Expect Delays

Future-construction alert: The state has big plans for Interstate 19

To all those commuters and Interstate 10 regulars cursing the onset of the latest round of construction headaches, take solace: Your vehicular brethren who frequent Interstate 19 will soon be in the same boat.

The Arizona Department of Transportation is moving forward with a wide-reaching, time-consuming overhaul of about seven miles of I-19, from where it connects with I-10 south to San Xavier Road.

Anyone who travels that route—yours truly has to navigate it regularly to get anywhere from my Sahuarita home—knows improvements are needed. But the eight-phase, $612 million plan involves much more than adding a few miles of pavement.

"If you've ever driven I-19 ... you can probably see that's a priority area," said Linda Ritter, an ADOT spokeswoman. "That highway was constructed in the 1960s. It needs to be brought up to standards."

Those standards include widening the highway from its existing two lanes to three—and eventually four—in each direction, as well as reconfiguring the traffic interchanges at Ajo Way, Irvington Road and San Xavier, and building new interchanges at Drexel and Los Reales roads.

All that work is necessary to accommodate an expected rise in average daily trips on I-19 from 47,000 in 2001 to more than 118,000 by 2030, according to a design-concept report released by ADOT in May.

ADOT officials made a presentation on the I-19 plan to the Tucson City Council in late October, even though construction on the first phase isn't likely to begin until late 2014. It's necessary to start talking to entities that could be affected by the project in order to identify any concerns not addressed in the concept study, Ritter said.

"One of the things we always make sure we do is go out to stakeholders and area businesses," Ritter said. "The people who drive these roads and the people who have businesses on them know these roads better than anyone, and know what's most needed."

One major stakeholder already working to make sure its opinion is heard is the Barclay Group, a Florida-based developer that owns and operates the 122-acre Tucson Spectrum shopping center on the west side of I-19 at Irvington.

While company managers are looking forward to I-19 being improved—along with the roads leading to it—they hope that by talking about it now, they can minimize the effect that road construction will have on business at the Spectrum, said Barclay senior vice president Bob Austin.

"We're not opposed to the widening; we're opposed to the process of the widening," Austin said. "We're attempting to have a dialogue regarding the benefit and detriment to this shopping center by not providing alternative entryways and exit ways."

At issue for Barclay, Austin said, is how the I-19 project's first two phases will affect the Spectrum. Both of those phases will involve work either on Irvington—the main east-west road that shoppers use to get into the complex—or on the ramps coming off the freeway.

Austin said his company has come up with some "alternatives" to the existing plan that would lessen the construction impact, though he declined to offer details.

ADOT's Ritter admitted that each of the phases will present challenges to the people and businesses that depend on I-19.

"It's always important for ADOT to make sure that any kind of business access remains open, that the interstate remains open, that traffic can flow," she said.

To that end, all plans call for I-19 to have at least one lane open in each direction at all times, while roads crossing over the freeway should remain open, aside from some intermittent closures, Ritter said.

ADOT doesn't have the luxury of completely shutting down I-19, as it was able to do when it widened I-10 through downtown Tucson. That was possible because of the frontage roads along both sides of I-10, something I-19 doesn't have.

As of now, only the first phase is considered a done deal in terms of funding. Money for that portion, which will cost more than $97 million, is already earmarked in ADOT's five-year (2011-2015) spending plan. Funding for future phases will need to be identified before plans move forward, Ritter said.

Because Congress designated I-19 in 1995 as the first segment of the so-called CANAMEX trade corridor through Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, federal funding may play a big role in paying for the project, Ritter said. It stands to reason that federal dollars may also be found to finally proceed with ADOT's wish to convert I-19's signage and exit numbers from kilometers to miles.

ADOT had planned to spend $15 million in stimulus money to make that change in 2010, but a public outcry—spearheaded by groups such as the quasi-governmental Green Valley Council—killed that plan and forced ADOT to use the funding on another project.

"We convinced the state that if they did that at this time, it'd be an economic disaster," council president Stan Riddle said. "To change those out would be a big problem for all the businesses that use those exit numbers in their advertising. There are still a lot of businesses that are struggling to keep their doors open."

The Arizona Department of Transportation plans to overhaul a nearly seven-mile stretch of Interstate 19 over the next 15 to 25 years, from San Xavier Road to where it meets Interstate 10. The project would consist of eight phases, the first of which is planned for late 2014:

• Phase 1: Redo the Ajo Way interchange and the southbound I-19 off-ramp at Irvington Road.

• Phase 2: Redo the Irvington interchange.

• Phase 3: Widen I-19 to three lanes in both directions from Ajo Way to Valencia Road.

• Phase 4: Widen I-19 to three lanes in both directions from Valencia to San Xavier Road.

• Phase 5: Build a new interchange at Drexel Road, and redo the southbound I-19 off-ramp at Valencia.

• Phase 6: Widen I-19 to four lanes in both directions from Ajo to Valencia, and build new ramps to connect Ajo Way to the I-19/I-10 interchange.

• Phase 7: Build a new interchange at Los Reales Road; redo the interchange at San Xavier Road; and build connector roads on both sides of I-19 between Los Reales and San Xavier.

• Phase 8: Widen I-19 to four lanes in both directions from Valencia to San Xavier.

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