Originally Published: April 5, 2018 6 a.m.
In the midst of a recent Phoenix summer, Black Canyon City resident Venora Jones and her 92-year-old mother-in-law found themselves stuck in an hours-long traffic jam on Interstate 17.
Jones remembers feeling a combination of worry about the heat, and frustration about the wait.
“It makes you angry — especially when you’re only a half-mile away from your exit,” said Jones, one of more than 200 people who filled the gym at a Black Canyon City elementary school Tuesday evening, April 3, to hear the state’s plans for improving the busy north-south interstate.
Like many of the audience members, she was hopeful about the Arizona Department of Transportation’s (ADOT) plans to improve I-17.
WORK SET TO BEGIN BY 2021-22
ADOT conducted this week’s public meeting to unveil its plans for major road work aimed at alleviating the regular traffic snarls that can close down I-17 for hours at a time — especially on busy holiday weekends.
The good news, say state officials: After years of studying the issue, improvements are on the horizon.
Alvin Stump, ADOT’s Northwest District engineer, outlined plans for building a third lane on both sides of the interstate between Anthem and Black Canyon City, as well as two “flex lanes” in the median of the interstate from Black Canyon City to Sunset Point.
The work is scheduled to begin during ADOT’s 2021/2022 fiscal year, Stump said, adding, “I’m excited to be at this point.”
Although I-17 traffic has been a concern for decades, Stump said traffic counts have increased dramatically in recent years — from daily averages in the 40,000-vehicle range just a few years ago, to current counts of upwards of 60,000 vehicles during the weekends.
That compares with the amount of traffic on the busy stretch of Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson. The difference, said Stump, is that I-10’s traffic numbers are consistently in the 60,000-vehicle range, while I-17’s numbers spiral during the weekends and during holidays.
HOW WOULD FLEX LANES WORK?
The I-17 flex lanes planned north of Black Canyon City would be reversible and would essentially double the interstate’s capacity during peak traffic times.
For example, when weekend visitors are flooding back to Phoenix on Sunday afternoons, the flex lanes could be opened to provide a total of four lanes going south. The same could happen northbound on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings, as the traffic heads north.
After Stump’s presentation on the basics of the plans, a team of ADOT officials and engineering consultants were on hand the public meeting to answer specific questions from the audience.
How the flex lanes would work — specifically, whether there would be a danger of wrong-way drivers — was among the main questions from audience members.
“My question is ‘how are they going to be sure the gates work when they’re supposed to?’” Jones said.
According to Stump’s presentation, the flex lanes would have controlled entries, and signs would indicate whether the lanes are available. A series of gates would control access into the lanes, and loops and cameras would allow ADOT to fully monitor the flex lanes before changing the direction of traffic on the lanes.
Currently, ADOT has $178 million available for the I-17 improvements, including $50 million from the Maricopa County Association of Governments, Stump said. In addition, the state has applied for another $120 million in federal grant money.
ADOT expects to hear whether the grant application is successful in late summer/early fall. If the grant money is not available, Stump told the crowd, “We will utilize the $178 (million) as best we can.”
Yavapai County Supervisor Tom Thurman, whose district includes Black Canyon City, attended Tuesday’s meeting, and commended the state for its recent progress on the plans.
“I am very pleased that ADOT has come to the plate, and that the legislature is helping to get funding,” Thurman said. “This is a start. It’s not a fix-all, but at least they’re doing something.”
Thurman said local residents often approach him about the need for I-17 improvements. “I hear it all the time,” he said.
Noting that he has heard suggestions from businessmen that the I-17 improvements should be funded through a public-private partnership (and a resulting road toll), Thurman says such an arrangement would not be feasible because of the infrequency of the I-17 traffic issues.
“Eighty percent of the time, you can do 70 miles an hour,” he said, maintaining that drivers would choose not pay the tolls during those times.
Even with the improvements, ADOT Spokesman Doug Nintzel said driving behavior would remain the main issue in safety along I-17.
Nintzel pointed out that ADOT and the Arizona Department of Public Safety have taken a number of steps to get drivers to slow down. Radar signs along I-17’s steep climb alert drivers to their speeds, as well as the posted speed limits. In addition, enforcement has been ramped up.
Audience member Tony Kovar said he would like to see more of that. “I don’t think all of this work will reduce accidents that much,” Kovar, a resident of Anthem, said before the meeting. “The number-one thing (needed) is more visible law enforcement.”