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Sun, Feb. 23

Solutions sought to I-17 issues

PRESCOTT - On a regular basis, drivers sit stranded on Interstate 17, waiting hours for traffic to clear after major crashes require lane closures.

The traffic interruptions have long been a matter of concern for local officials, who point out that the interstate serves as the main link between Phoenix and Northern Arizona.

When I-17 shuts down, they say, transportation and commerce comes largely to a halt. The impacts are far-reaching; not only are motorists routinely delayed on trips to appointments or airline flights, but trucks carrying mail, packages, groceries, and other goods are often hours late in reaching their destinations.

Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) District Engineer Alvin Stump said the state has been studying the situation for years. A "design concept report" process is currently under way on a plan to widen the 21-mile section between Black Canyon City and the Highway 69 interchange to eight lanes.

But with costs for that "ultimate fix" running in the $500 million range, Stump said, ADOT has looked for other, more affordable options.

One possibility: Construction of a two-way reversible section in the interstate's median. The lanes would be adjacent to the existing southbound lanes, but separated by a concrete barrier.

Such a section could deal with rush-hour traffic - opening to northbound traffic on Friday afternoon and evening, for instance, or to southbound traffic on Sunday. It also could help deal with backups during accidents.

But even the two-lane option would be costly. Stump says the eight-mile stretch from about Black Canyon City to the Sunset Point rest area is estimated at about $100 million.

To put that cost into perspective with ADOT's budget, he pointed out that the state department has only about $25 million per year available over the next five for all rural-Arizona projects.

This week, the Central Yavapai Metropolitan Planning Organization (CYMPO) posed another alternative. In a resolution to the Arizona State Transportation Board, the local transportation-planning organization suggested that the state look into partnering with private enterprise to come up with an interim fix for the interstate.

The resolution, which the CYMPO executive board approved at its Wednesday, April 15 meeting, points out that I-17 has been identified as a "Key Commerce Corridor" for the state. The current uncertain funding affects the "economic vitality, mobility, safety, and general welfare of the CYMPO region, as well as all of Arizona," it added.

CYMPO Board Chairwoman Mary Mallory emphasizes that I-17 is a statewide issue, not just a Northern Arizona issue.

"It's traveled by everybody in this state," she said, adding that a fix for the interstate is "long overdue."

The public-private partnership suggestion was an attempt to look beyond the traditional funding methods. Mallory said she has heard discussions about the possibility at a number of conferences.

"I would like to see us stop talking and actually move forward," she said. "If this is the answer to a problem, let's go with that. Let's take a serious look at it."

CYMPO Administrator Chris Bridges said the executive board sees I-17 as a high priority for the region.

"The board said 'basically everyone in the area has been affected by I-17 on some level,'" Bridges said, noting that he has had to detour through Wickenburg five times recently to avoid the backups from I-17 crashes.

Bridges presented the resolution to the State Transportation Board on Friday, April 17. He acknowledges that it is just a first step, and the details of how a public-private partnership would work have yet to be determined.

Possibilities include paying back a private investment through either a toll system, Bridges said, or through a long-term contract involving annual payments by the state.

CYMPO's resolution declares support for the state "to immediately pursue a public-private partnership for the purpose of delivering the identified construction improvement for the I-17 corridor from Black Canyon City to (Highway) 69."

Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter @Cindy_Barks.

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