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Maricopa County Plans Future Roadway Development, But Faces Budget Woes

On a given work day, Steven Bales could drive anywhere from 100 to 150 miles for his job.

“So this road we’re on right now, Highway 85, is the busiest road, other than I-10.”

He drives around his farm in rural Buckeye to show it’s surrounded by county roads — like State Route 85 and parts of Beloat Road. Bales’ farming family has been here for generations.

He said there are three essentials to keeping the farm successful — water, labor and the county roads.

“Most farmers are not contiguous anymore, you know, they own a hundred [acres] here, you go half a mile or a mile down the road,” Bales said. “So we’re on the roads all the time.”

And roads like SR-85 allow him to transport all of his crops, like hay, to be sold.

“We’re looking at the lifeblood of this far southwest side of the Valley,” he said about SR-85.

Those roads have changed, and more are paved, but Bales thinks they could be better maintained.

“I think they’re going downhill, for one thing,” he said. “We have more roadways in the Valley and I think that’s grabbing a big chunk of the budget.”

Maricopa County Department of Transportation funding comes mostly from highway user revenue funds, which is money collected from gas taxes and vehicle registration fees, to name a few. To address concerns like Bales’, MCDOT has written up a Transportation System Plan through 2035.

“Talking about budget constraints, one of the reasons we want to identify the roadways and the needs for the roadways is that we can prioritize them as we move to the future,” said Denise Lacey, MCDOT systems planning manager.

Lacey helped write the TSP, and she said most of the projects identified are in unincorporated areas, like Tonopah, Wittman and Sun City.

“Most of our growth potential is in the West Valley," Lacey said, "and that’s why you’ll see so many projects from Maricopa County that are focused in the West Valley area.”

More Development Means More Traffic

Back in Buckeye, Bales can attest to seeing more development popping up in what used to be all farmland.

“And it’s taking off again, after the great recession,” he said. “It’s starting to pick up again, new rooftops. I see traffic pick up a bit.”

But Bales said it’s not just the extra traffic MCDOT needs to address — it’s also keeping the dirt roads in shape. And he said the county has neglected that.

“So I’ve noticed the sides of our roads, going down, down, down,” he said about the county road shoulders, which are made of dirt. “And I’ve just watched out in front of my property, the side, the edge of the road, crack and crumble and be gone.”

While that maintenance is crucial for the 5,300 miles of county roads, the Transportation System Plan identifies projects mostly to plan for more traffic in those developing areas.

For example, one part of the plan is to widen parts of Northern Avenue near Glendale.

This interactive map by the Maricopa County Department of Transportation highlights proposed projects under the Transportation System Plan 2035. Click to explore. (Image courtesy of MCDOT)

Arizona’s Transportation Budget Woes

But before any of these projects can be completed, the budget must be carefully parceled out.

And if the whole new plan is actually followed through by 2035, and there are no changes to the budget, there will be a funding shortfall of about $146 million.

“So we have to prioritize to budget to get the roadways done and then hopefully we don’t lose fundings as we move to the future because legislative actions can reduce our funds,” Lacey said.

The worry of fewer funds is just one part of the transportation money woes state and local departments face.

Arizona’s gas tax is 19 cents per gallon.

While that may be good for consumers, that tax hasn’t increased since the 1990s and has put a dent in the transportation coffers. In fact, 45 states have a higher gas tax, according to Kevin Adam with the Rural Transportation Advocacy council.

“And when you have a system like that for over 25 years, it starts to really have an impact,” Adam said.

He said it was a perfect storm when the recession hit; people drove less and cars got more fuel efficient. Transportation revenue dropped more than $350 million.

“So we were already in bad shape, we got dramatically worse, and that’s what we’re trying to dig ourselves out of now.”

While it may sound dire, Adam said this year’s legislative session was promising. Though no bills passed to increase any funding for transportation, many were introduced – which he said is a good start.

“And I think folks down at the capitol now recognize that we are underinvesting, and I think we’re building a platform to take action.”

That’s not to say there is no money for MCDOT’s transportation plan. Their next step is to prioritize which roadways need the most attention and how they can allocate their budget best.

Casey Kuhn reports from KJZZ’s West Valley Bureau. She comes to Phoenix from the Midwest, where she graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.Kuhn got her start in radio reporting in college at the community public radio station, WFHB. She volunteered there as a reporter and worked her way up to host the half-hour, daily news show. After graduating, she became a multimedia reporter at Bloomington's NPR/PBS station WFIU/WTIU, where she reported for and produced a weekly statewide news television show.Since moving to the Southwest, she’s discovered a passion for reporting on rural issues, agriculture and the diverse people who make up her community.Kuhn was born and raised in Cincinnati, where her parents instilled in her a love of baseball, dogs and good German beer. You’ll most likely find her around the Valley with a glass of prosecco in one hand and a graphic novel in the other.She finds the most compelling stories come from KJZZ’s listeners.