The Congressman Ed Pastor Freeway

The Congressman Ed Pastor Freeway (also known as the South Mountain Freeway) connecting east and west valleys may open Dec. 20 

After decades of planning and preparation, years of litigation and 36 months of digging, blasting and back-breaking work, the Congressman Ed Pastor Freeway connecting the East and West Valleys opened Saturday, Dec. 21.

The day before, Gov. Doug Ducey held a press conference for the 22-mile, eight-lane link connecting the Chandler and West 59th Avenue interchanges on Interstate 10 – and a thoroughfare for an estimated 117,000 to 140,000 vehicles a day, half of the trucks.

Joining Ducey for the announcement at the new freeway bridges over the Salt River are a host of dignitaries and officials, ranging from Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community to Arizona Cardinals President Michael Bidwill and Arizona Department of Transportation Director John Halikowski, as well as members of the late congressman’s family.

“Decades in the making, this opening marks a historic achievement for Arizona,” Ducey said in a release. “This new highway – the largest highway project in state history – represents Arizona’s continued commitment to 21st-century infrastructure will enable our state’s growth for generations to come.”

While the freeway’s exact opening date has been kept a closely guarded secret, several sources have indicated it would be Friday, Dec. 20.

State Engineer Dallas Hammit told the State Transportation Board at a meeting Nov. 15, “We are moving forward with a dedication date on I believe it’s Dec. 18 with the governor and others will be overseeing or participating in and then we look to open shortly after – within probably four to five days.”

The board members were told they’d be put on a bus Thursday, Dec. 19, for a personal ride along the length of the freeway.

Hammit also stressed, “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

“All those lawsuits trying to stop the project are done, but there are some concerns on right-of-way, on noise walls we’re working with through our normal process,” he said.

Noise walls and the glare of freeway lights flooding dozens of homes and backyards in the Ahwatukee stretch of the freeway have been an ongoing concern for months – and it’s unclear if, or when, the highway agency will be correcting it.

Also marked for completion next year are two last-minute additions to the project totaling an extra $20 million – interchanges at 32nd Street in Ahwatukee and near Ivanhoe Street near the Vee Quiva Casino on the Gila River Indian Community. 

Also slated for completion next year is the 15-to-20-foot-wide multi-use path along six miles of  southern side of the Ahwatukee segment of freeway ADOT agreed to build after cyclists and joggers had complained about the loss of flat Pecos Road and its mountain and open desert vistas.

The $1.7-billion freeway is the work of Arizona’s first major public-private partnership between ADOT and a consortium of companies called Connect202Partners.

This partnership used a design-build approach to the freeway with a 30-year maintenance agreement. Connect202Partners is led by Fluor Enterprises Inc., and includes Granite Construction Co., Ames Construction Inc. and Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc. as the lead designer. Additionally, 10 subcontractors had participated in the construction.

Fluor and DBi Services, LLC, will maintain the lanes for 30 years with oversight from ADOT.

“The project has turned heads around the industry because its sophisticated alternative delivery package is expected to result in cost savings between $122 and $200 million and bring motorists onto the new freeway about three years ahead of schedule,” said HDR, a general engineering consultant ADOT used for the freeway.

The project was broken into four segments and includes two 2,000-foot-long bridges over the Salt River, 15 interchanges, high-occupancy vehicle lanes as well as HOV ramps, five multi-purpose underpasses for wildlife and hikers and the state’s first half-divergent diamond interchanges.

 The two half-divergent interchanges are both in Ahwatukee, at Desert Foothills Parkway and 17th Avenue, are patterned after full-divergent diamond interchanges in a handful of other states to improve safety and mobility for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.

Along the entire stretch of the freeway, crews installed more than 20 miles of drainage pipe, laid over 107,000 tons of asphalt pavement, moved 9.9 million cubic yards of dirt and used 10,800 tons of rebar manufactured from recycled steel, ADOT said.

Economic impact huge

Government and private-sector leaders have hailed the project as a vital step toward completion of the freeway loop system will stimulate massive economic development in parts of Phoenix and the West Valley. 

“Throughout the design-build-maintain lifecycle, South Mountain Freeway is estimated to create about 30,000 jobs,” HDR said, indicating it would generate $2 billion in economic development along the entire stretch of the freeway and beyond.

Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels said last year, “As an East Valley mayor, I am especially excited to see this extension take place from a business perspective. The freeway will provide an economic development corridor better connecting businesses in the East and West Valleys.”

“I saw firsthand how the Loop 202/Santan Freeway helped business development,” Daniels added. 

Orion Real Estate Investment said while the freeway would be “a release valve for traffic congestion on existing freeways and local streets,” it envisions explosive growth in the West Valley 

“It’s not often when 22 miles of freeway is added to a major city in the U.S.,” Orion said. “It also isn’t often when a large area becomes ripe for a slew of economic development opportunities for a variety of markets. Phoenix is set to see all of this become a reality when the South Mountain Freeway is finished.”

It predicted the industrial sector “will feel the most immediate impact.”

“The West Valley has become the epicenter of Phoenix’s industrial market, primarily for logistics operations,” it said, noting the traffic congestion on the I-10 “has been caused by semi-trucks moving goods eastward.”

The Pastor Freeway “will provide another route to access the fast-growing East Valley or reconnect to the I-10 in Chandler while bypassing traffic in and around downtown, Orion said, adding:

“Last-mile deliverers will likely view West Valley as a more viable location moving forward and will feel less pressure to establish operations somewhere in the East Valley. Conversely, logistics companies in the East Valley will have easier access to the West Valley and major metropolitan areas in California.”

Orion also has forecast an explosion in multifamily construction, primarily in areas of south and west Phoenix-like Laveen and South Mountain, but likely along most of the freeway.

“Traditionally, most demand here comes from single-family homebuyers seeking a suburban lifestyle,” it said. “But the South Mountain will become more convenient for renters in need of quick freeway access to major employment centers in the East Valley.”

It noted Gilbert and Chandler were basically “farm towns with an abundance of developable land” until they “were transformed into dynamic economic engines in a relatively short period of time.”

 Orion also forecast significant office building and retail growth will follow the resident development.

Less clear is the impact on the huge swath of reservation land the freeway runs near.

One warehouse project already is on the books on Gila River Indian Community land at 40th Street and the ramps near Ivanhoe Street are being installed partly to provide “improved access to and from the Gila River Indian Community west of the freeway.”

Tortured history, worrisome future

The South Mountain Freeway, renamed in honor of the late Congressman Ed Pastor in recognition of his work on behalf of many freeway projects in Arizona, was first conceived in 1983 as the Southwest Loop Highway and became more than a wish list item when voters approved the freeway system in 1985.

But it wasn’t until ADOT began buying up homes in Ahwatukee neighborhoods in the early part of this century as part of its right-of-way acquisitions opposition ballooned.

The Gila River Indian Community and a group of Ahwatukee homeowners united as Protect Arizona’s Resources and Children had distinct reasons for fighting the freeway in the form of two federal lawsuits eventually were treated by the courts as one big case.

Native Americans primarily opposed the freeway because it cut through three peaks of South Mountain, which they consider sacred. PARC zeroed in on the environmental impact of all the trucks and cars on children who attended more than a dozen schools along the thoroughfare’s path.

Those environmental concerns also were shared by the Gila River Indian Community, which accused ADOT of running roughshod over sacred burial sites despite ADOT’s assertion it devoted countless hours to carefully examining land in the freeway’s path so no sacred sites were desecrated.

Ahwatukee homeowners near the freeway’s footprint said the tens of thousands of vehicles a day predicted to use the freeway will generate toxic fumes and pose health hazards not only to school children but virtually anyone living there.

“No freeway is worth the destruction of the South Maintain Park and Preserve,” PARC President Patricia Lawlis said last week. “This freeway represents a huge investment for little benefit except for trucking companies is especially reprehensible.”

Both ADOT and the Federal Highway Administration vehemently denied the allegations, contending they had devoted years of analysis to the freeway’s impact on wells, air, noise and nearby parkland and adhered to all federal environmental guidelines, even going beyond the mandate of those guidelines.

The government, tribal and neighborhood parties in the suit filed thousands of briefs and exhibits as opponents tried to stop it. 

In August 2016, U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa’s issued a 35-page decision rejecting all the opponents’ claims and ADOT announced it would immediately begin removing federally protected plants, such as Saguaros, from the freeway path and relocating them in safe areas for replanting once construction was complete.

Thousands of more pages of briefs followed as opponents tried to upend the decision in the Ninth District of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

The fight died there as a panel of judges upheld Humetawa.

But the discontent didn’t die.

The construction triggered numerous complaints by residents, who said crews working almost round-the-clock were disrupting people’s sleep and extensive blasting cracked foundations and walls on homes and garages,

While residential communities near the freeway look with anxiety at what a newly opened freeway will bring to their neighborhood, residents already have been bitterly complaining about unshielded lights and claim a number of residents were forced to buy black-out curtains as their backyards take on the look of a stadium during a night game.

ADOT said it would install light shields, but those shields so far have not been installed.

They also have complained about ADOT’s failure to extend the sound walls along the Ahwatukee portion of the freeway far enough west. ADOT said its decibel studies indicated the wall was not needed in the area because its traffic noise would be below the decibel level and will not go beyond the federally mandated threshold to warrant noise suppression.

The agency said it will revisit the issue next year as traffic begins pouring onto the freeway.

But while resentment among some people is drowned out by praise for the project, one thing is clear: The freeway will likely be open by Christmas and bring with it a new world to thousands of people in many different forms.

ADOT spokesman Tom Herrmann told the Peoria Times, “The freeway is expected to open to traffic in the coming week, following the Dec. 18 media event with Governor Ducey and other local leaders.”

Once safety checks were finalized, the new freeway officially opened on Saturday.