Bret Roberts drives the dangerous highway a dozen times a week for most of the year.
The Maricopa resident has seen serious accidents on State Route 347, sat in its traffic and witnessed people driving recklessly on the four-lane highway with three high-speed intersections, daring to become another statistic.
With about 40,000 vehicles using the road every day, many Maricopans have witnessed the same craziness on the primary thoroughfare in and out of town. Some cannot mention their last commute to or from the Valley without using salty language. Or posting photos or video of other drivers doing stupid things to their Facebook page.
But when Roberts talks about the problems on SR 347, his voice is heard all the way to the state Capitol, where he is in his second term as a state representative from Legislative District 11, which includes Maricopa.
For the second straight session, Roberts introduced legislation, House Bill 2068, in January seeking $35 million toward construction of an overpass on SR347 at Riggs Road, the most dangerous intersection on the 13-mile stretch between I-10 and the Maricopa city limits. The bill passed through the House and Senate and awaits action during the state budget process.
“The ask in the bill is $35 million but it doesn’t mean you’ll get $35 million or anything,” he said. “We won’t know till the budget is passed.” That is expected in May.
If the full appropriation is included in the budget — the money would be moved from the General Fund to the Arizona Department of Transportation in Fiscal Year 2022 — it would represent a significant effort to get the ball rolling quicker on a multi-year, multi-pronged effort to increase safety and reduce congestion on the highway, including widening to six lanes and addressing intersections at Casa Blanca Road and the cement plant.
“I focused on the Riggs Road project because of the number of fatalities at that intersection, and serious accidents on top of that,” he said. “That particular intersection, for whatever reason, is a really problematic intersection. It seems like the best place to try and direct some funds there.”
In 2019, there were 308 traffic accidents on SR347 between I-10 and State Route 84, according to data from the Arizona Department of Transportation. Four deaths and more than 140 injuries were reported in those incidents.
Of the 308 accidents, 57 occurred in the vicinity of milepost 185, near the Riggs Road intersection. In the past two years, there have been nine fatalities at the intersection, Roberts said. Most recently, a motorist was killed in an accident in late December.
And the problems look to get worse.
“Maricopa is growing,” he said. “More houses. More people moving here. And we obviously have a traffic problem.”
‘THE OPPORTUNITY WAS THERE’
Four years ago, Roberts was on his way out of public service when he made a U-turn to seek a state House seat. Coming off a four-year term as Pinal County constable of Maricopa/Stanfield Justice Court after winning election in his first campaign for elected office in 2014, he and his wife, Oly, decided he would not seek re-election.
That decision came after Roberts won plaudits for becoming Pinal County’s first presiding constable.
“As constable, Bret Roberts had a very positive impact on the office and in many ways changed the public’s perception of the office in a positive direction,” said Glenn Morrison, who succeeded Roberts. “He served his community with compassion and dedication. I was honored to follow him in this office.”
When state Sen. Steve Smith decided to run for Congress, then-state Rep. Vince Leach ran for Smith’s Senate seat. That left Leach’s House seat vacant.
Rep. Roberts understands how important State Route 347 is to the people of Maricopa and has been a champion for finding solutions. His pursuit of funding for the Riggs Road overpass is nothing short of outstanding.”
– Dale Wiebusch, intergovernmental affairs director, City of Maricopa
Roberts had no real interest in politics until he became disturbed by national policy decisions by the Obama Administration. That was the inspiration to start being someone who paid attention, he said.
He became active in local and county politics, serving as a Republican committeeman and getting to know many people. That led to the successful campaign as constable, and then suggestions that he consider a run for Leach’s House seat.
“I kinda blew it off at first,” Roberts recalled. “Then it came up again. I was told I would have some support. So, I started to explore the opportunity, and there was no pushback. I was actually thanked for considering it.
“I went back and forth on it. It was a third of the paycheck (he received as constable) and way more public scrutiny. Ultimately, we made the decision to run.”
In the end, Roberts just couldn’t pass it up.
“I think it was just more about the opportunity,” he said. “The opportunity was there and it’s not always there. It was never my intention to run for higher office when I ran as constable. It was really kind of an afterthought.”
‘A MAJOR UNDERTAKING’
He won election to the state House in November 2018 and began his first session two months later. He was re-elected in November 2020 to his second term.
“It should also be noted that instead of remaining constable, he chose to take the harder road and advance to the state legislature,” Morrison added. “This demonstrates his dedication to public service.”
Now in his third legislative session, Roberts said the experience has given him the opportunity to gain more in-depth exposure on many issues.
“A lot of important stuff comes through the Legislature,” he said. “I’m one of 90 individuals out of 7 million in the state of Arizona that gets to weigh in on policy for the entire state.”
It’s been a unique year so far legislatively, he said, with the recent election cycle underscoring polarization between Republicans and Democrats, as well as making COVID-related policy.
“A lot more people are more intensely involved in this session,” he said. “I’m seeing a lot more intense frustration from individuals.”
As one member of a collective body trying to find solutions in a polarized legislature, Roberts said his influence is limited. “It’s a major undertaking to convince 31 out of 60 representatives to vote a certain way.”
“Rep. Roberts is a dedicated public servant who works tirelessly to serve the constituents of LD11,” said state Sen. Vince Leach, who knows Roberts well. “I am very proud to call him a seat mate and friend.”
Roberts hasn’t yet decided if he will seek a third term in 2022. He can serve two more two-year terms before term limits kick in, though he could run for Senate.
“I don’t have any reason to not seek re-election at this point,” he said. “I like what I do, being involved. I would venture to say I’m leaning toward seeking re-election.”
Roberts said there is an X factor in his decision, with the 2020 census and redistricting delayed. It remains to be seen if Maricopa will end up in a redrawn district.
“It’s a factor out of everyone’s control,” he said.
As far as running for other office, Roberts was noncommittal.
“I don’t have any desire to be (Maricopa) mayor or go to D.C.,” he said. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t entertain it, I just I don’t have any plans for any other elected office.”
‘MUCH GREATER INTEREST’
For now, Roberts is working to make sure the overpass appropriation clears the budget process.
There are encouraging signs that years and years of handwringing about the SR347 situation is giving way to possible solutions, a process hampered by the sheer number of stakeholders who must cooperate to get the job done, including City of Maricopa, Gila River Indian Community, Pinal and Maricopa counties, state Department of the Transportation and Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG).
“This year, there has been much greater interest” in a solution, Roberts said.
Gila River recently provided its long-awaited input on the MAG study, which can now move into the next phase, including the gathering of public input on different facets of the plan, Roberts said. The City of Maricopa recently threw financial support behind the overpass.
“The city putting up $1 million for a project outside of city limits is a testament to how important the issue is,” Roberts said.
Gila River, Pinal County and MAG also want to kick in funding, Roberts said. Meanwhile, the fate of an important source of funding for improvements on 347 rests with the state Supreme Court. Voters in 2017 passed Propositions 416 and 417, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) plan and the mechanism to fund that plan, respectively. But the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank which has contested Prop 417 since before the election, sued, claiming the 20-year, half-cent sales tax on purchases up to $10,000 was an illegal tax.
Despite the lawsuit, the RTA has collected tens of millions of dollars since April 2018 with the approval of the courts. Those revenues would help fund improvements to SR347 and the creation of an east-west corridor between Maricopa and Interstate 10 at Casa Grande. A Supreme Court ruling is expected in the spring.
That situation aside, Roberts and Maricopa officials are encouraging residents to reach out to legislative leaders — Rep. Regina Cobb, chair of the Appropriations Committee, Vice Chairman Rep. John Kavanagh and House Speaker Rusty Bowers, and their cohorts in the Senate — to press support of his bill.
“Maricopa is fortunate to have Sen. Vince Leach involved in those conversations,” Roberts said. “Hopefully, that can have a positive effect.”
‘CHAMPION FOR FINDING SOLUTIONS’
Roberts’ efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by city leaders.
“Rep. Roberts understands how important State Route 347 is to the people of Maricopa and has been a champion for finding solutions,” said Dale Wiebusch, the city’s intergovernmental affairs director. “His pursuit of funding for the Riggs Road overpass is nothing short of outstanding.”
“I am very pleased and appreciative of the efforts Rep. Roberts put forth to get this bill passed,” agreed Councilmember Henry Wade. “I am also happy that the citizens of Maricopa let their voices be heard through the legislative process as well. Moving forward, it will be a great asset and beneficial to the City of Maricopa’s economic growth and our fellow SR347 users.”
Councilmember Rich Vitiello concurred, saying Roberts was doing a “a great job. The city of Maricopa appreciates his hard work.”
Roberts enjoys his role in the Legislature and loves life in Arizona since moving here more than 20 years ago. Wanting to live somewhere with small-town charm but close to opportunities in the Valley, he and his wife eventually settled in Maricopa with their three children in 2009, riding out the financial crisis. Their three adult children attended Maricopa Unified School District schools and their son is an ASU graduate.
Over the years, the Roberts have volunteered at concession stands for MHS football games and helped organize group motorcycle trips. Daughter Olivia joined the family in 2018 and will soon be 3.
“She is daddy’s princess,” Roberts laughed. “So spoiled.”
Sometimes, when he is conducting the people’s business in Phoenix, his wife will put on Arizona Capitol TV so Olivia can see her daddy at work.
“I admire Rep. Roberts’ commitment to his family,” said Judge Lyle Riggs, who Roberts worked with as constable. “The time commitment to serve in public office is tremendous, but he has balanced quite well this time commitment with being a husband and father.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, as hundreds of cars alternately whizzed through the SR347-Riggs intersection or sat in a line of traffic at the light, Roberts surveyed the confluence of the busy highway and rural road. It wasn’t difficult to imagine he was picturing the overpass, and a day not so far in the future when his daughter — indeed, all Maricopans — can drive the 347 more safely.
REP. BRET ROBERTS
Hometown: Bowling Green, Ohio
Maricopan since: 2009
Elected positions: State representative, 2019-current; constable, 2014-2018
Salary: $24,000 annually, plus $60 per diem for the first 120 days of regular and special sessions
Committees: Criminal Justice Reform, Government and Military, Public Safety and Education
Previous occupations: Detention officer, mortgage banker
Hobby of the moment: A recent obsession with leatherworking, borne out of a purchase of boots and a plethora of YouTube videos. His first project was a business card case. “For whatever reason, it has fascinated me. There’s so many different things you can do.”