Pete Buttigieg visit
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg listens to the safety concerns of local leaders during a visit Thursday to State Route 347 and Riggs Road. Photo by Mark DeLap

By Mark DeLap

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg stopped by State Route 347 and Riggs Road on Thursday afternoon to hear the concerns of local leaders about the dangerous roadway.

Serious accidents and fatalities on the highway have drawn cries for help from state and local officials in Maricopa and Pinal counties. Congressman Tom O’Halleran, District 1, used the visit to elevate visibility of the safety issue to the top official in the U.S. Department of Transportation in Washington.

As rush-hour traffic streamed by, Buttigieg and O’Halleran chatted with Mayor Christian Price, Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community and Chairman Robert Miguel of the Ak-Chin Indian Community at the deadliest intersection on the 13-mile stretch of road connecting Maricopa with the Valley.

In 2019, 308 accidents occurred on SR 347, with 57 in the vicinity of milepost 185 near the Riggs Road intersection. In the past two years, nine motorists have died at the intersection.

Price told the secretary the growth south from Phoenix and north from Tucson puts Maricopa right in the middle of a growth explosion. He intimated with more growth, there would be more problems unless something was done to address safety on the highway.

Buttigieg and his entourage met at the southwest corner of the busy intersection where he could observe weeknight traffic. Just moments before the secretary’s car arrived, in fact, there was a fender bender at the intersection.

Buttigieg, at age 39 the youngest-ever transportation secretary, has been visiting cities with traffic problems since his February confirmation. Standing at the roadside Thursday he was asked what he could do to change the situation on SR 347.

“Of the priorities we pursue in our department, safety is No. 1,” Buttigieg said. “It is, in my view, why this department exists. And so, to hear as we did throughout our conversation with tribal leaders, and certainly to see this example of what’s at stake with safety, it illustrates why we need to be doing more.”

He expressed the need for more resources and funding to make improvements.

“That’s why there’s both a safety specific pocket of funds and more broadly more support for things like roads and bridges that are designed with safety in mind,” the secretary said. “Part of it’s in the way we work with states, with tribes, with local governments. Like speaking to the mayor, who has a vision for where his community is headed.”

One of the grave obstacles, he added, are overburdened and underserved communities.

Buttigieg said his visit to the intersection will leave an imprint on his mind as he travels to Washington, D.C., next weekend for a cabinet meeting.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, second from left, chats with a group of local leaders – from left, Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community, Maricopa Mayor Christian Price, Chairman Robert Miguel of the Ak-Chin Indian Community and U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran.

“Certainly, we will be bringing the images and stories that come from this trip back to the White House,” he said. “This will be fresh on my mind as we talk about what it actually looks like to the issue of safety and what do we mean when we say we’ve got to have economic growth through good transportation policy.”