Arizona Republic transportation reporter Sean Holstege discusses the latest transportation news including federal funding for a proposed I-11 corridor connecting Phoenix and Las Vegas.
Ted Simons: There was a transportation bill signed by the President earlier this month. Here to talk about that and other transportation news is Sean Holstege, who covers transportation issues for the "Arizona Republic." Thanks for joining us.
Sean Holstege: Good to be here.
Ted Simons: Let's start with the train switch. Is this I-11 thing going to happen?
Sean Holstege: Depends on who you talk to. There are a lot of powerful people behind it in both states, Arizona and Nevada. They have the key landmark decision that gives them the opportunity and that's this presidential signature on the transportation bill. It doesn't happen very often. Last time was 2005. A new interstate is a very rare thing in the United States.
Ted Simons: Where would it start, where would it end?
Sean Holstege: It would happen in phases. Initially what most people consider I-11 is Las Vegas down U.S. 93 through Wickenburg somehow, down west of the White Sands, further south and east behind the Estrella Mountains.
Ted Simons: When you say around the Estrella Mountains, again, this gets to -- what about the south mountain freeway?
Sean Holstege: That's where the controversy -- we haven't heard a lot of controversy yet, but it hasn't been a real plan yet. The action this month put it on the map literally and figuratively. It's there to be planned and for the federal government to spend money on. It is a bypass for truck traffic, mixed traffic. It parallels the South Mountain Freeway. For those who don't like the idea of always building freeways to solve our problems or to move goods and people, they may see that as a redundancy. That process is now unfolding.
Ted Simons: Opponents are saying it's just another freeway. What are supporters saying?
Sean Holstege: Supporters are saying, first of all, that Phoenix and Las Vegas are the only two major cities of their size, a million or more, that close and that unconnected with a freeway. It's a gap in the national freeway system is one argument. The other argument is we need a way to get more commerce between the two cities and up from Mexico to Canada. The only option is I-5 on the west and all the way over to Texas, I-35. The mountain region, the fastest growing region in the country, there's no real direct route for all that truck traffic and tourism traffic up to the intermountain west.
Ted Simons: How much would this cost?
Sean Holstege: Beyond that, I can't tell you, it's a lot, a lot of money. We're talking about a couple hundred miles of freeway, widening 93, and we're talking billions. For that reason ADOT and mag and Las Vegas are talking about a toll road at least south of Wickenburg.
Ted Simons: Obviously it's going to be untold billions. Who will pay it for, and how will that be paid for?
Sean Holstege: It's a good news, bad news thing. The federal government now can spend money on it. Up until this point that was not possible. There's always more money in the federal interstate programs than all of the other programs the Transportation Department pays for. That's in the public purse. Put in context, the government spends $50 billion a year on all modes of transportation throughout the country. You start to talk $5 billion, $10 billion for a freeway, part one, that's the basis for the toll road. The other basis is we're not looking at anything realistic for at least 10 years or maybe 20.
Ted Simons: 10, 20 years?
Sean Holstege: Depending on how aggressive they are and to what extent ADOT can negotiate a deal with the landowners that want to donate the property for the roadway.
Ted Simons: Another big issue is this Union Pacific plan to build a switching yard down at Picacho Peak state park.
Sean Holstege: They break them up loads and reassemble them so they can be sent off to the different destinations. If there are car parts that need to go to Detroit, they will put all those on one train. If there are ag products to go somewhere else, they reassemble the trains. They need a large piece of property to do that. The property near Picacho Peak is six miles long, it would be 74 tracks wide.
Ted Simons: Where exactly would it be? Everyone knows where Picacho Peak State Park is. Where would this thing be in relation?
Sean Holstege: If you can visualize the ostrich farm, it's down and across, south and east from the park and from the historic marker.
Ted Simons: And this is state trust land.
Sean Holstege: Correct.
Ted Simons: Which brings in a whole different dynamic. Talk about the process needed for the State to sell this land.
Sean Holstege: And again, the State doesn't have to sell this land. They are trying to get the best bang for the buck.
Ted Simons: Are critics saying this is the best bang for the buck?
Sean Holstege: Critics will have a chance to weigh in on it in a couple of weeks. The State Department is at the tail end of reviewing the application that Union Pacific put in to acquire the land. Everyone who wants to buy state lands has to apply for the right to do so. They are getting the best value for the trust for the State that it can. Sometimes it means selling now, sometimes waiting for a better deal to come along.
Ted Simons: This process and this project have actually changed the way state land is sort of thinking about the way it conducts business. Historically, we think of desert ridge when we think of state land. What's the highest best use of a parcel near an interstate? Maybe it's development but do we really think anything can be developed there? They have to decide whether a rail yard is the best applicant. That's what they are in the middle of doing right now. and not only that, it strikes me that there are other parcels of state land in the vicinity. If you sell to Union Pacific for a rail switching yard, what does that dod to the valve neighboring state lands?
Sean Holstege: Absolutely. That's the analysis they are going through right now at state lands. They own most everything to the east of that yard. Think of a railyard as a six mile long wall. You can't bridge it or go across it, you have to go around. State land is evaluating what that barrier does to the value of the lands east. If you deny access or make it more difficult to get access to their other land, that is on balance a bad deal for the State? That's what they are trying to do right now.
Ted Simons: The concerns regarding Picacho Peak state park, what do you think? Are people visiting there going to see trains coming and going?
Sean Holstege: Six miles long, it's going to be visible. It may be noisy, too. Union Pacific says they have remedies for that. It's not directly across from the park, it's sort of at an angle. Will it like the park? There are mixed opinions about that.
Ted Simons: What kind of timetable as far as building from Union Pacific?
Sean Holstege: End of the month from when they finish their evaluation, because of the process to apply and do the paperwork and the public noticing, people say it won't be until early next year that it could be made available for sale. After that, Union Pacific says they can build these very quickly.
Ted Simons: Excellent stuff. Good to have you here, Sean.
Sean Holstege: Thank you.
Sean Holstege:Transportation Reporter, Arizona Republic;