Construction officially began on the Sonoran Desert Parkway last month, but the road project is hardly a new idea.

The first purpose-built parkway in the state of Arizona is more than a decade in the making.

Former Mayor Anthony Smith, who left office in 2012, first championed the idea. His successor, Christian Price, has worked fastidiously for the last decade to garner support for the project. Both men were present for the groundbreaking in mid-June.

The project has been around long enough to have undergone a name change.

Formerly referred to as the East-West Corridor, Sonoran Desert Parkway will link John Wayne Parkway on the south side of Maricopa to Interstate 10, providing an alternative to State Route 347 to get to the Valley.

While the roadway itself may look like a straight shot on a map, there have been plenty of twists and turns to get to the point where city, county and tribal officials were able to gather on a hot Monday morning in June to celebrate the beginning of construction.

The first of those curveballs came earlier this year when the Arizona Supreme Court —on a legal technicality — shot down the Prop 417 half-cent sales tax enacted a few years ago by Pinal County voters aimed at improving roads throughout the county. About $80 million already collected for transportation projects will be refunded.

The tax was supposed to raise $4 million of the $26 million needed for the Sonoran Desert Parkway project.

City Manager Rick Horst said except for the $4 million coming from the county roads tax, which will be back on the ballot this fall, the project will be funded by impact fees paid by developers. And while a March poll indicated broad support from voters for the tax, if it does fail at the ballot box, the city will find a way to make up the shortfall.

Horst said the project is too important to let stall.

“You know, at the end of the day, if you’re always waiting for the cavalry to show up to bail you out, you’re probably going to fail more often than you succeed,” Horst said. “So, as a progressive community, both through our City Council’s leadership and our staff’s tenacity, we were not going to let that stand in our way.

“We were going to find other ways to germinate and create this project and allow it to happen.”

Access points
One of the biggest flaws in the transportation infrastructure in Maricopa is getting to and from the Valley, where most residents work. State Route 347 is the one road in and the one road out. The four-lane highway is plagued by congestion, particularly at rush-hour, and it is dangerous due to three high-speed intersections.

Maricopa Vice Mayor Vince Manfredi serves on several county and regional transportation boards, including the Rural Transportation Advocacy Council and the Pinal County Regional Transportation Authority board of directors. He explained access to and from Maricopa is a popular topic of discussion throughout the city.

“Being able to create a new and different way out of town is what people ask for,” Manfredi said. “Number one is, ‘When are we fixing the 347?’ And then it’s, ‘When are we going to get another road out of town?’”

It’s important to have another way to get in and out of Maricopa, but the new parkway will also improve connectivity between Maricopa and Casa Grande.

With employers like electric car manufacturer Lucid and plumbing fixture giant Kohler opening manufacturing plants in Casa Grande, that city is becoming a hub for high-paying jobs. Sonoran Desert Parkway will make it easier for Maricopa residents to work jobs there instead of the Valley.

Matt Herman, a member of the Casa Grande City Council, said the road will enhance cohesion between the two cities. To get Sonoran Desert Parkway to the finish line, Casa Grande’s leaders will play a pivotal role.

“We all know how important infrastructure is for the future of our communities,” Herman said. “And with us working together, bringing employees back and forth between our two cities, bodes well for the future.”

Herman said he was glad to accept a little challenge from Manfredi.
“Vice Mayor Manfredi told me, not so subtly, that it’s Casa Grande’s turn to get things going on that end,” Herman said. “I’m glad to take that message back, because we can’t do it soon enough.”

ETA for first phase: One year
The initial leg of the project is a 1.6-mile stretch between John Wayne Parkway and Porter Road along the Farrell Road alignment. The four-lane parkway eventually will link SR 347 to Interstate 10, incorporating a stretch of the Maricopa-Casa Grande Highway, giving residents of the south side of the city a more efficient route to connect with I-10.

There will also be the capacity to expand it to six lanes.

Ross Renner is the transportation engineer with the Capital Improvement Program for the City of Maricopa. He’s responsible for ensuring the process is smooth.

“I’ve still got a page and a half list of things that need to get done to get us to the end. We keep clicking them off, but there are still a few on that list. We’ll keep working at them. My goal is to remove all the roadblocks for our contractor.”

Construction is expected to take 12 months, according to Renner, and he hopes a ribbon cutting will be possible in June 2023.

“That’s our game plan unless we run into unforeseen conditions that push the end date,” he said.

Part of expediting the project was closing Farrell and Porter roads to local traffic.

“That shaved about four months off the construction duration,” Renner said.

After Maricopa completes its phase of the project, the next steps will be up to Pinal County and Casa Grande. All total, nearly 20 miles of new highway and a new bridge over the Santa Rosa Wash will be built.

Renner said there are still hurdles to clear.

“We still have some issues with utility companies getting out of the way before we can start construction on the bridge,” Renner said. “We’re coordinating with them.”

A ‘must’ for a growing city
There’s a massive housing project coming south of town, near Stanfield. The 1,886-acre Santa Cruz Ranch project will be the site of 6,600 homes and an estimated 21,000 residents who will need a more efficient way to get to the Valley than the laborious drive through Maricopa on John Wayne Parkway and then SR 347.

Plans for a new Interstate 11 spur have been bandied for years, but as with most federal projects, the gears move slowly. The project is at least a decade away from breaking ground.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, from July 2020 to July 2021, Casa Grande had the seventh fastest growing population in the country, expanding at a rate of 6.2%, followed by Maricopa at 6.1%.

The parkway will be needed to help accommodate growth in Maricopa. That expansion is coming, which Horst feels will benefit the taxpayer.

“Growth is what will enable us to continue to lower property taxes for our citizens,” Horst said. “And growth will continue to enable us to bring business opportunities here. If our citizens don’t have to continue to travel outside of the city to conduct those business opportunities and we can get back that $400 million a year our citizens spend in other communities, think of how much better off we’ll be.”

“I don’t call it a parkway,” Horst added. “I call it an economic corridor. This isn’t just about getting cars from point A to point B; it’s about enabling growth.”

This story was first published in the July edition of InMaricopa magazine.