It’s a hot morning in late June and while traveling to Maricopa on State Route 347, you notice traffic backing up. It’s hard to tell why — a miles-long automotive caravan lines up in front of you, robbing your visibility.
As it turns out, a semi-trailer full of trash caught fire just north of Casa Blanca Road. The incident was reported around 10:30 a.m. It took nearly eight hours for the road to re-open.
While a literal dumpster fire on SR 347 offers some poetic justice, most commuters will tell you it feels like an everyday occurrence on this troubled highway.
It seemed like the punchline to a joke, but it was anything but to the thousands of commuters who had their day disrupted as one of the worst heat waves in Arizona history began.
For some, it went well beyond the mere inconvenience of dealing with traffic issues. It meant getting stranded when their cars overheated or ran out of gas — all in the raging summer heat in no-man’s land with help miles away.
The situation angered Arizona House Rep. Teresa Martinez, the Republican vice chair for the Arizona House Transportation Committee and one of Maricopa’s two representatives.
“We need to make sure our roads are safe and efficient,” said Martinez, who contacted ADOT to follow up on the incident. “I wanted the information on what the response time was and what the time it was to take to clean up.”
More than a dozen cars dotted the highway shoulder that steamy afternoon, either overheated or out of gas.
“And then there’s no turn-back,” Martinez said. “There’s no turnaround. That’s completely inappropriate.”
It’s no secret SR 347 is one of the most dangerous highways in Arizona, especially that 14-mile stretch between Interstate 10 and Maricopa.
Earlier this year, ADOT released a study reporting a total of 967 crashes on SR 347 from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2022.
An average of 193 crashes occurred each year, or more than one crash every other day.
Most of the collisions didn’t result in injury but 21 of those had serious injuries and another 15 were fatal.
Auto crashes stay on the minds of the thousands of Maricopans commuting to the Valley each day for work — but throw in a heat wave and a gas tank that’s running low, and you might have another kind of disaster waiting to happen.
A day after Martinez spoke of the hardships endured by motorists during the June 26 dumpster fire, another similar situation took place Sept. 12 when a violent storm came through that downed power lines and rendered traffic signals useless, once again shutting down the thoroughfare, stranding thousands for hours.
The next morning, the traffic lights still weren’t working, but law enforcement officials were on hand to direct traffic until everything was back online.
The road ahead
Ironically enough, one of those intersections affected by the freak storm in September that shut down the traffic lights was at Riggs Road and has been slated by the Arizona legislature for an overpass, which would allow traffic to move through without a stoplight.
The project is the first in a line of planned improvements for SR 347. Former Arizona state Rep. Bret Roberts secured $35 million in state funds for the overpass before he moved to South Carolina in 2021. When Roberts left, Martinez was tapped as his replacement and won reelection the following year.
Martinez has been working to ensure that the Riggs Road overpass doesn’t slip through the cracks of ADOT’s bureaucracy.
With the number of entities involved — Maricopa County, the Gila River Indian Community, Pinal County and the state — the process can become complicated, Martinez explained.
“These projects take time, and I get that,” Martinez said. “It’s my job to make sure that the holdup isn’t with ADOT and that they are moving things along as fast as they can.”
She’s gotten assurances and timetables, which show construction for the project starting in 2027 and opening for traffic in 2028.
The project at Riggs Road is a huge one for the thousands making that daily commute, but it’s not the only action taking place.
In its last session, the Arizona Legislature allocated funds for more enhancements for SR 347 and State Route 238 corridors.
The projects include:
- Reconfiguring intersections at Cement Plant Road and Casa Blanca, improvements aimed at eliminating cross-traffic at these intersections, resulting in improved safety and reduced congestion
- Pavement rehabilitation on SR 347
- Widening of SR 347 from I-10 to the Maricopa city limits
- Improvements on SR 238 within the city limits
As part of the $17.8 billion budget passed at the end of July, each Republican house member was given $20 million to spend and each senator was given $30 million.
TJ Shope, Maricopa’s Republican state senator, ponied up $18 million from his own allotment for the intersections at Cement Plant Road and Casa Blanca. The design phase for the project is underway. Construction is slated to begin next fall with completion in the fall of 2025.
The pavement rehabilitation will happen in the next five years and will cost $28 million with 94.3% coming from federal aid funds and the remaining 5.7% from the State Highway Fund. The planning is ongoing with construction to begin in 2026 with completion expected in the summer of 2027.
Martinez spent $6 million on widening SR 347 between I-10 and Maricopa this year. The project is in the design phase. The completion date is unknown.
During last year’s session, Martinez procured $16 million for improvements within the city limits on SR 347 and 238 as part of a turnback agreement where ADOT will repair the roads and turn over control to Maricopa. Some of the work has already begun.
The city is adding an additional $7.7 million, along with matching federal funds for the project, which will most notably include:
- Adding a northbound lane from SR 238/Smith-Enke Road to the northern city limits
- An additional northbound acceleration lane that begins at Lakeview Drive
- Rehabilitating existing pavement
- Installing sidewalks
- Adding an improved traffic signal at Lakeview Drive
How the sausage is made
As part of the turnback project, Martinez had originally secured $19 million in funding. However, the law specified the money could only be used on SR 347. When the city wanted to use some of that money for SR 238, Martinez had to resubmit the bill to get the language added to allow the change in scope.
Unfortunately, the process involved sending the bill through committee, which meant Republican state Sen. Jake Hoffman, the transportation committee’s vice chair that year, was able to shave $2.7 million off that amount and force Martinez to use those funds on any project other than State Routes 238 or 347.
Republicans are constantly looking to curry favor with activist groups like the Arizona Free Enterprise Club. Hoffman was no different.
“He wanted to prove a point in front of Free Enterprise, who do not like me,” Martinez said. “He was showing off in front of Free Enterprise and the Cato Institute.”
Hoffman, who outranked Martinez at the time, told her she could pick any project in the state to spend those dollars — including the city of Maricopa. The only problem was that there were no other projects in Maricopa that were a fit for those funds.
Legislators ended up spending the money on a project on the Gila River Indian Community.
This political wrangling is a prime example of the hoops Maricopa’s representatives must jump through to make sure the city’s concerns are addressed in the state capital.
Maricopa Mayor Nancy Smith lauded the efforts of Martinez and Shope.
“We all know how important these improvements are not only to alleviate congestion but also to make these roads safer for our residents and visitors alike,” Smith said in a statement. “Everyone will benefit from these efforts for years to come, and we commend the work of our local representatives, who worked tirelessly to secure these funds. They introduced and shepherded the legislation and made these pieces their individual budget requests, fighting for them in the process, and they were 100% instrumental in getting these funds.”
Maricopa Intergovernmental Affairs Director Katy Proctor also noted Democratic Arizona Rep. Keith Seaman’s staunch support of these critical projects: “We are very fortunate to be represented by legislators who support these critical infrastructure projects in our region.”
During a safety meeting earlier this year on SR 347, ADOT Division Director Brent Cain said ADOT’s assessment included determining a number of short-term recommendations that can take place between longer-term projects.
“This is not the ultimate solution, but what we can do…now to help with the crashes that are out there,” Cain said.
Cain said ADOT recommended several short-term solutions, including re-striping the road to add or extend turn lanes to “help with traffic capacity.” Other recommendations included speed enforcement by the Arizona Department of Public Safety, installing additional signage, re-evaluating posted speed limits and installing median crossovers, a short roadway on the median that allows for U-turns in emergencies.
However, State Engineer and Deputy Director Greg Byers pointed out these kinds of projects take resources.
“None of this is happening very fast,” Byers said. “It takes time to go through and do the studies that are necessary, it takes time to do the planning that’s necessary, but even harder, it takes time to get the funding. That’s one of the biggest hangups that we have.”
A woman on a mission
When you talk to Republican Arizona state Rep. Teresa Martinez, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to the problems faced by Maricopans on the local roads, most notably State Route 347.
Martinez, the House whip and vice chair for the Arizona House Transportation Committee, has personal reasons for her laser-beam focus on traffic safety.
According to Arizona Department of Transportation statistics, a crash occurs every other day on the thoroughfare.
One crash, however, stood out to Martinez.
Back in March, 10-year-old Suheiry Fernandez died in a multi-car crash on SR 347. Martinez understands their deep feelings of loss.
When Martinez was 10, her father, Victor Martinez, died in a crash the day before Christmas Eve during his daily commute to San Manuel.
“It was icy and some of those sharp curves at the time weren’t the safest,” Martinez said. “He lost control of his truck and died on the way to the hospital.”
To this day, Martinez remembers seeing her father for the last time.
“He went to kiss me on the cheek, and I turned away because I was mad at him,” she said. “I wouldn’t even look at him and he left. The 23rd was his birthday. He left at midnight and on the morning of Christmas Eve, they tell me that I get to open my presents because he’d died the night before.”
Victor Martinez was 35 when he died needlessly, like the deaths that occur on SR 347 each year.
“That stuck with me,” said Martinez of her father’s death and Fernandez’s. “When we go by and we see traffic accidents just, that’s somebody’s dad or somebody’s brother or somebody’s son. That 10-year-old little girl, that was their child in a traffic accident that didn’t need to happen.
“That could have been avoided.”
And for that reason, Martinez says she will unapologetically vote for any bill she believes addresses road safety for her constituents.
Martinez has taken fire from conservative groups like the Arizona Free Enterprise Club for her votes on transportation issues, most notably putting Proposition 400 on the ballot in Maricopa County, but says she’s more worried about road safety than winning a purity contest.
“I’m sure they’re going to put out a mailer where they label me as a RINO (Republican in name only) or a low-energy Republican or whatever,” she said.
“I just turned 55 on Sept. 1,” Martinez said. “I don’t have time for any more political games. I’m going to be nice to people and be cordial wherever I can, but I’m not going to back down. I’m going to fight for what I think is right for my constituents.”
Martinez pointed out her ”yes“ vote for Prop 400 will directly benefit Maricopans who commute each day to the Valley for work.
“It’s important to know that there’s five miles of SR 347 in Maricopa County,” Martinez said. “It’s going to help fix part of that road. How could I vote ‘no’ against that bill, knowing that my constituents are driving on it every day? How can I do that in good conscience?”
Martinez is a conservative Republican who served as a staffer for U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) prior to becoming a state representative. She believes that the state government should be held accountable for making sure that roads are safe and efficient.
“Government shouldn’t be in our lives about sex, or about how we spend our money. The least we could do is deliver the mail on time, fix our roads, protect our country, and teach our kids a little bit of math, English, writing and some science, so they can get a job and support themselves.
“Everything else needs to be handled by the people, but we can’t even get the roads right.”
Editor’s Note: This story was corrected to reflect that Jake Hoffman, who at the time was the Vice Chair for Transportation in the Arizona Senate, would have allowed Rep. Teresa Martinez to use the $2.7 million in funding he held back from a bill for State Routes 238 and 347, anywhere in the state – including Maricopa.
This story was first published in the October edition of InMaricopa Magazine.