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Observations on the Transportation System in Maricopa County

By Eric Anderson Transportation Director, MAG Arizona Transit Association

Maricopa County was again the fastest growing county in the United States adding over 81,000 people to the population in 2018. Since 2010, the population of the county has increased by almost one-half million people reaching a population of 4.4 million. The population growth in Maricopa County represented almost 70 percent of the entire population in Arizona.

The economic pull of Maricopa County is undeniable. Although we are blessed by natural beauty, great weather, a relatively low cost of living, and an attractive business and regulatory environment, we have to continue to deal effectively with this growth by providing good educational opportunities, assured water supplies and infrastructure, including an efficient transportation system. None of these important elements happen by chance, but rather take foresight and careful planning.

Take the freeway system that we use every day. Can you imagine living here today without our highway system? When I first moved to Maricopa County in the 1960s, I-17 was the only free- way in the region. I recall work on I-10 was getting underway from the vicinity of the airport and around the Broadway curve. Work on the Superstition Freeway (US-60) was also starting with the first section opening to Rural Road in 1970 and to Price Road in 1975. Construction of I-10 from the California border east to Phoenix was underway with the first section in the metro area opening to Dysart Road in 1978.

While work on I-10 was proceeding, there were no regional freeways. An early plan published in 1960, provided the first glimpse of how a regional network of highways might look in Maricopa County. Over the next two decades nothing happened to move the plan forward. By the early 1980s, the traffic situation was reaching a breaking point in the region. Based on projections of the traditional revenues sources for highways, the planned Loop 101 freeway could take 50 years or more to complete – clearly a different way of paying for regional transportation projects was needed.

Regional leaders from local governments and business developed a plan to use a special property tax to fund the projects. Based on input from the business community, this plan was changed to a dedicated 20-year, ½ cents sales tax to build the regional freeway system. The passage of the tax in October 1985 with 72 percent support, launched one of the largest high- way construction programs in the United States. Proposition 300 as it became to be known funded the construction of the Pima, Price and Agua Fria freeways (Loop 101) and constructed the Red Mountain and Santan (Loop 202) freeways.

The voters in 2004 were asked to renew the tax for another 20 years. The renewal, known as Proposition 400, passed with a 57 percent majority . For the renewal, the tax was divided among freeway and highway projects, public transportation and arterial street projects. The freeway program funded the construction of the Loop 303 freeway and completion of the Loop 202 – the South Mountain Freeway – is scheduled to open soon. In addition to building new freeways, the Proposition 400 funding is being used to widen portions of Loop 101, Loop 202, I
-10 and I-17. Increased bus service throughout the region was also a key component of the plan along with funding to establish the light rail system from Phoenix through to Tempe and Mesa. The Tempe Streetcar is also currently under construction.

Arterial projects across the region were also included in Proposition 400. The construction of the Northern Parkway, Sonoran Parkway and Black Mountain Parkway were funded as well as improvements to many others across the region. In addition, a number of intersections were substantially improved under Proposition 400.

The impact of the decades of transportation investments in the region are very clear. The Phoenix metro area typically ranks very low on the levels of congestion that we experience here compared to other major metro areas
around the country. According to the traffic monitoring company INRIX, the Phoenix metropolitan area ranked 22nd in terms of congestion, a very good ranking given that the region is the 11th largest in the U.S. in terms of population. The average cost of congestion in Phoenix is about $1,013 per driver in 2018. This is significantly less that other metro areas like Denver, Seattle, Houston, Austin and Atlanta.

Our transportation system has been an important and critical element to the economic development of the region. The development pattern here is one of multiple activity centers around the region that depend on the transportation network to provide a high level of connectivity. Greater levels of mobility and connectivity mean that the productivity levels of our economy are much higher than they would be otherwise. Higher urban productivity provides a big economic development advantage over areas that lose productivity through the economic drag of a poor transportation system.

Having a vibrant economy that provides good and diverse job opportunities attracts new people to the region. The highway network combined with the grid street system that exists in most parts of the valley provide alternative routes to get to most destinations. The flexibility of the system is one of the biggest attributes of our system in that it results in a higher level of mobility for people and goods.

Do you want to see what the freeways that we use every day mean to you? Use the mapping or navigation platform of your choice and look at the travel times from your home to work. Now run the same but restrict the use of freeways and highways. (using Google Maps, this can be done by clicking on Options when you use the routing function). My travel time to work goes from 30 minutes using the highways to 47 minutes without. With about 1.9 million work trips each day in Maricopa County, you can see the magnitude of the time savings provided by our transportation system.

Maricopa County continues to be a great place to live, work, play and raise a family. Our quality of life and the many economic opportunities afforded by our growing economy will continue to attract people and business to the region. With a population that is expected to exceed 6.2 million by 2050 we must continue to invest in transportation to add highway and street capacity, fix bottlenecks, expand and improve public transportation. Maintenance and repair to en- sure that our system is in a good state of repair will also be essential to preserving the investments that we have made.

Proposition 400, the regional sales tax for transportation, is set to expire in 2025. In the near future, voters will again be asked to renew the tax so that can continue to improve and maintain our great transportation system that is so important to our everyday lives. The Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) is just beginning the planning work necessary to lay the foundation for the renewal of the tax. But is seems clear that safety, emerging technology, and preservation — in addition to expanding the existing system — will be important elements of the plan moving forward.

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