With plummeting Arizona sales tax revenue leading to lower returns on the half-cent share going to fund transportation projects, the hot topic at the last few monthly meetings of the Maricopa Association of Governments’ Transportation Policy Committee has been ways to bridge the expected $6.6 billion deficit in funding the remaining projects in the Regional Freeway and Highway Program.

According to the committee’s July meeting transcript, a scenario being considered would save $4.1 billion through deferrals and $762 million through management strategies such as lower construction, right-of-way and system-wide costs.

However, the most interesting facet of the draft scenario is the proposed $1.7 billion in value engineering savings that would result from changes along the Loop 202/South Mountain and Loop 303 freeway corridors, including the controversial South Mountain Freeway.

Bob Hazlett, MAG Senior Engineer, spoke about the proposed savings during the committee’s May meeting. With the cost for the freeway’s original design floating around $2.5 billion and some residents up in arms over the potential of houses being taken for right-of-way, a variety of options are being considered. Some have suggested turning the freeway into a 45-mph limit parkway, which would reduce the cost drastically. But even if it saves half the cost, that’s still over $1 billion for a bypass road that holds little appeal to anyone bypassing Phoenix – most truckers will prefer to stick with the existing 65-mph route through downtown Phoenix than go for a bypass with such a drastically low speed limit (for Arizona anyway).  

Other options, such as limiting the roadway to eight lanes and using an existing alignment for 59th Avenue help bring the cost down to $1.9 billion. It’s commendable that the engineers were able to find that much savings in the new plan, but it does beg the question as to why it takes a financial crisis to do so. In fact, Mesa mayor Scott Smith pointed this out during the meeting, saying that using the 59th Avenue alignment is the kind of cost-effective thinking that should be the norm.

This Arizona Republic article says that the freeway’s unpopularity has become a campaign issue for the upcoming Phoenix City Council race. 

As an Ahwatukee resident, I’m a little mystified by the controversy. I sympathize with those that might lose their homes, but for everyone else, how can people live in Phoenix and be surprised that a freeway might pop up in their midst?

Since Ahwatukee is a bedroom community (and often referred to as ‘the world’s largest cul-de-sac’), you’d think residents that have to make the congested commute from their South Mountain enclave to downtown Phoenix using only a single route would be thrilled to remove a big chunk of vehicles from I-10 during rush hour.

I know I will be thrilled, but unfortunately I’ll have to wait more than a decade: construction on the 22-mi bypass isn’t expected to begin until 2017.