For several years, the rocky relationship between the Gila River Indian Community and the Arizona Department of Transportation hasn’t done much to advance a solution for the woes on State Route 347.
But a letter sent to the Arizona Congressional Delegation earlier this month would appear to indicate the relationship is changing – and that is good news for Maricopans, officials said.
Joining Eric J. Anderson, executive director of the Maricopa Association of Governments, in in sending the letter was Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River community, and John Halikowski, director of the Arizona Department of Transportation.
The April 7 letter, which seeks federal funding for highway infrastructure projects, signals mutual cooperation between GRIC and ADOT despite dissension between the two parties in recent years.
“The relationship between Gila River Indian Community and ADOT has not always been great,” Anderson said, referring to the community’s efforts in 2016 to block expansion of the Loop 202 freeway.
But the “stars are aligning,” he said.
Maricopa Mayor Christian Price used the same expression to describe the changing situation.
“It’s a really big deal,” he said. “This means we have an official partner to work together to solve problems.”
‘WORKING TOGETHER IS THE ONLY WAY’
GRIC’s buy-in on the need for major improvements to SR347 is vital. The entire, nearly 14-mile highway between the Maricopa city limits and I-10 runs through tribal land. The four-lane roadway, which carries about 40,000 vehicles daily, is inadequate for the amount of traffic with congestion a regular rush-hour occurrence. Meanwhile, Maricopa continues to grow.
Perhaps more importantly, the road is dangerous. Its three high-speed intersections – at Riggs Road, Casa Blanca Road and the traffic light at the cement plant – are the scene of many accidents, frequently serious and too often fatal.
In 2019 alone, 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.
State Rep. Bret Roberts, LD-11, a Maricopa resident who commutes to Phoenix regularly via SR347, introduced in January for the second consecutive session a bill seeking $35 million toward construction of an overpass at Riggs Road as an initial step toward making the road safer. The bill has passed through the House and Senate and awaits action during the state budget process.
“I focused on the Riggs Road project because of the number of fatalities at that intersection, and serious accidents on top of that,” he told InMaricopa recently.
Of the letter, Roberts said he is eager to work with GRIC.
“I am very pleased that the Gila River Indian Community has made State Route 347 a top priority of theirs,” he said. “I look forward to working with them to bring this project to completion.”
“Working together is the only way that we’re going to get this done,” Councilman Vincent Manfredi said the mutual effort getting a boost. “The 347 needs to be expanded, needs overpasses and needs interchanges that work to keep traffic moving.”
A request for comment on the letter was not immediately returned by the Gila River governor’s office.
According to Price, the GRIC governor visited the city several years to discuss mutual projects of interest, including the SR347 project. Over the course of a three- or four-hour meeting, the mayor said he and Councilmember Henry Wade emphasized to Lewis the need to rebuild trust between GRIC and ADOT.
“That letter is exactly what we had proposed three-and-a-half years ago to him,” Price said. “They have big plans at Wild Horse Pass. It makes sense for them to do it. Their best interests are now aligned with ours.”
SIX LANES PROMOTES SAFETY
Proposed improvements to increase safety and decrease congestion on SR347 typically mention a widening to six lanes and elimination of the three traffic signals.
The funding request mentions four specific highway projects within the boundaries of the Indian community, including the widening of SR347 from I-10 to Peters and Nall Road.
The letter noted a study proceeds to identify an overall concept for the corridor that will drive future planning, design and construction. In addition to GRIC, ADOT and MAG, study participants include the City of Maricopa and Pinal and Maricopa counties.
A consultant is reviewing concepts to most effectively widen the corridor, which will vary by segment based on adjoining land use and future demand. The parties agree the safety of the highway would improve with widening.
The letter said there is consensus among all partners that the SR 347/Riggs Road intersection needs to be grade-separated and the interchange with I-10 requires significant improvements. With considerable planning and design work necessary before any improvements can be made, “there is a lot of interest for this to happen soon,” the letter said.
Current cost estimates to widen SR347 to six lanes could range anywhere from $200 million to $250 million.
The other projects include the widening of I-10 from State Road 187/387 to Loop 202, increased capacity and improved safety on State Route 87 and reconstruction of State Route 187.
The Arizona Congressional Delegation is composed of U.S. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, and U.S Reps. Tom O’Halleran (1st District, including Maricopa), Andy Biggs, Ruben Gallego, Paul Gosar, Raúl Grijalva, Ann Kirkpatrick, Debbie Lesko, David Schweikert and Greg Stanton.
Full disclosure: Vincent Manfredi is minority owner of InMaricopa.