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$54M grant will tackle nitty-gritty of Interstate 10 upgrades

The federal government is expected to kick in $54 million to help pay for three highway improvement projects on Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix, including widening two stretches to six lanes and developing technology to warn drivers of potentially deadly dust storms.

The money will come in the form a FASTLANE grant that was awarded to Arizona this month by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The three projects are:

  • Widening four miles of I-10 from four to six lanes near Picacho and rebuilding the interchange with State Route 87.
  • Widening another four miles from four to six lanes just south of Casa Grande from Earley Road to Interstate 8, and upgrading ramps at Jimmie Kerr Boulevard.
  • Researching and developing technology to improve traffic safety, including remote sensors that detect impending dust storms and send early warnings to drivers.

In all, the three projects will cost $157 million. Because of the FASTLANE grant, Arizona's share of the bill will be $103.5 million. There's one catch: the $54 million in federal money is contingent on approval by Congress. But that's considered a formality, with Congress set to OK about $800 million in FASTLANE grants across the country this fiscal year. Arizona's 2017 budget includes $30 million to put into the projects.

"This is a big win for communities across Pinal County and for our southern Arizona economy," said U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

There were 212 applications for nearly $10 billion in projects, more than 10 times the available amount, committee leaders said. Arizona's I-10 upgrades were among the 18 tapped.

Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix is one of the busiest corridors in the state. It carries up to 120,000 vehicles per day, including some 40,000 trucks, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation. Widening the highway will reduce congestion as well as the number of fatal and serious traffic accidents, said ADOT spokeswoman Laura Douglas.

"It's one of those corridors that's used so frequently," says Douglas, "it needs to be updated to allow the free flow of traffic."

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"Completing expansion of I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix, which now alternates between two and three lanes in each direction, will result in a safer, more efficient highway for people and freight," said Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, who congratulated ADOT on the grant.

The projects are part of ADOT's newest five-year construction plan. The work on widening I-10 near Picacho could begin as soon as July of next year. Widening the highway near Casa Grande won't happen for at least two more years.

But when the construction is completed, all of I-10 from Tucson to Casa Grande will be a six-lane divided highway.

As for the dust storm warning technology, ADOT has tested a system that combines visibility sensors, wind gauges and cameras to detect blowing dust along I-10 near the New Mexico border. That's the same general area that was closed by several dust storms in May.

In October of 2013, dust storms along I-10 near Picacho Peak led to two major traffic pileups that killed three people and injured more than a dozen. The stretch is frequently shut down when blowing dust reduces visibility, sometimes to zero.

Douglas says the agency is still in the early research and testing stages. But, she adds the that $54 million FASTLANE grant will help ADOT continue on its quest to develop a dust storm detection system that's reliable and can quickly send warnings to drivers.

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DryHeatPanzer/Flickr

A 2010 dust storm in Marana.