You’re dead-still in The Line, hands seared to your steering wheel, about 3 miles deep in stalled traffic on State Route 347.
You and roughly 40,000 of your daily commuter brethren. Every day. Whether headed north to work or south back home.
Traffic finally begins to creep and then, bingo, the traffic light at Riggs Road turns red and you’re in a parking lot once again. It’s scorching hot. Unless you’re in an electric vehicle, you’re contributing to air pollution as you sit there. And you’ve hit the boiling point. You’re sick of it.
“Don’t we know it?” U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran said during a recent interview with InMaricopa.
How much longer must you be subjected to this torture?
O’Halleran believes relief is within sight despite an Arizona Supreme Court ruling this year that set back Pinal County’s plans to contribute tax dollars to widen SR 347 from Interstate 10 to Maricopa and build an interchange at Riggs Road.
Arizona Department of Transportation estimates nearly 72,000 cars a day will be on that stretch of highway by 2040.
Pinal County voters in 2017 approved, Props. 416 and 417 a half-cent sales tax to fund roads and a mechanism to distribute those funds. The Goldwater Institute, a conservative think-tank, sued, claiming implementation of the tax was unconstitutional. Appeals went all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court, which in March ruled a portion of the tax was unconstitutional and nullified it. About $80 million in collected tax money remains in escrow with the Arizona Department of Revenue until a plan is enacted for its return to businesses that paid.
Maricopa City Attorney Denis Fitzgibbons said the court ruled the tax itself was legal, but its two-tiered implementation, in which only the first $10,000 of a transaction is subject to tax, is illegal in the county.
“The decision by the courts here in Arizona didn’t help that process, but we’ve had multiple conversations with the people of Maricopa and Pinal counties,” O’Halleran said. “The underlying factor is the Infrastructure Bill that went out the door. I worked hard on that to make sure the funding was there to be able to accomplish those goals, whether it was the 347 or the widening of I-10. We’ve been working on that for a few years now. We are moving incrementally to address those objectives.”
Last year, O’Halleran brought U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to view SR 347 and I-10.
“By coming out to the site and seeing it firsthand, he understands the issue now at a much higher level,” O’Halleran said.
The congressman added The American Rescue Plan also brought in more dollars “to be able address those issues.”
“We’ve provided now enough money to have flexibility to do it, but now people have to put the deal together and finish the deal,” O’Halleran said. “I’ll be there to provide any help I can. I think we’re pretty close to addressing those issues.”
The majority of the 16 miles from I-10 to Maricopa run through the Gila River Reservation.
“We’ve also worked with the Gila River Indian Community to help mitigate some of those issues,” he said. “So, there’s a huge difference between where we are and where we were two years ago on this issue. I think we’ll get there.”
The overpass at Riggs Road at the 347 is nearing design and environmental studies stage, due in large part to former state Rep. Bret Roberts, who helped secure $35 million in funding.
State Rep. Teresa Martinez and state Sen. TJ Shope were instrumental in landing a $19 million allocation in the state budget for design study. Any overage would go toward State Route 238 widening and pavement repair, including the John Wayne Parkway/Smith-Enke Road intersection.
The 347 project remains hundreds of millions of dollars from start of construction, but the design study is a precursor to requesting more state and federal construction funds.
In November, Pinal County voters will get another regional transportation tax issue, Proposition 469, a retooled version of Props. 416 and 417. In June, the Pinal County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved putting the new half-cent sales tax to voters to fund the Pinal Regional Transportation Authority.
The earlier version of the tax struck down this year by the state Supreme Court was challenged by the Goldwater Institute because it exempted purchases of more than $10,000, and two-tier taxes are prohibited under Arizona law. This tax proposal eliminates that exemption.
Public opinion in an InMaricopa poll overwhelmingly supported retooling the proposition and taking it back to voters.
It is similar to Proposition 400 in Maricopa County, a half-cent sales tax that built the metro Phoenix freeway system. Prop. 400, which expires in 2025, was to go to voters in November for extension, but Gov. Doug Ducey in July blindsided nearly every municipality in the Valley by vetoing a bill that would have allowed Maricopa County to ask voters to extend it again to fund major transportation projects for the next 25 years. Maricopa Association of Governments likely will attempt to get it back on the ballot under a new governor and new state Legislature before it expires in three years.
Prop. 400 money is important because a section of SR 347 runs through Maricopa County.
An ADOT study showed road-construction costs have climbed 72% in the past six years. With time being of the essence, money from Pinal and Maricopa counties to augment that already in place could speed the timetable and keep costs lower. Pinal money also would go toward construction of the Sonoran Desert Parkway linking southern Maricopa with I-10.
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