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Building the Sun Corridor: I-11 Gains Traction

Sometimes a fact breaks through.

When we released the Metro Program’s 2008 report “Mountain Megas” about the “megapolitan” super-metros of the Mountain West, my colleague Rob Lang and myself picked up on past work by the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) and began to point out that massive Phoenix and Las Vegas stand as the two largest proximate metropolitan areas not linked by an interstate.

This observation might have seemed a bit abstract, but in fact it built on significant past discussion of the Mountain region’s underdeveloped transportation networks. And since this is the can-do West things have started happening. 

MAG, which had already studied a proposed freeway corridor that would connect U.S. 93 (the present Las Vegas-Phoenix route) to Interstate 10 in the southern Phoenix suburbs, reaffirmed the plausibility of a new Interstate 11 to facilitate north-south transportation in the region.  The Las Vegas Sun and the Arizona Republic began to write about the missing link. And this year multiple cities from Wickenburg, Ariz. to Las Vegas have been signing onto the Interstate 11 idea, along with U.S. senators, regional governments, a Nevada legislative committee, and state and federal transportation agencies.  I-11 was gaining traction.

Now, the concept of a north-south interstate to connect the two Mountain megas has garnered new force with its most formal embrace yet: a major speech by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer at the Sun Corridor’s Joint Planning Advisory Council a few weeks ago. With the speech Brewer formally announced a request by the Arizona Department of Transportation for $2 million to $5 million to begin formal environmental and other studies of the new interstate. 

And yet Brewer’s remarks are noteworthy beyond project delivery because they begin to embed the idea of connecting two massive but poorly linked metropolitan areas in a strategic, substantive, international view of commerce and value-creation. Implicit in Brewer’s remarks, after all, was a thoughtful recognition that the Sun Corridor needs to look beyond the traditional Mountain region growth model of migration and real estate activity to seek lasting advantage in new sources of growth. That one of those sources of growth is almost certainly global trade and specifically exports (as we will suggest next week in a new report and event) clearly implies the need for the creation of a 21st-century transportation infrastructure in the Southwest.

But let’s leave the last word on this status report on super-regional thinking and planning in the Southwest to MAG’s past chair Councilwoman Peggy Neely from Phoenix who was instrumental in establishing a Joint Planning Advisory Council for the three county Sun Corridor.  As reported by the Arizona Republic’s Sean Holstege, the matter of filling a gap in the Intermountain West’s inadequate surface transportation system is now being smartly framed by leaders like Councilwoman Neely and current MAG Chair Tom Schoaf and others.  Far beyond mere road-building, they are thinking of I-11 as one element in an ambitious super-regional vision of world trade and freight dynamics, expanded north-south exchange, and economic diversification tied to the potential creation of a major new deepwater port in Mexico at Punta Colonet. For Neely and Schoaf, the rationale for a possible new interstate link in the Mountain West is not inter-regional fairness, or the creation of real estate value, or a need to create another road to Las Vegas’ gaming and tourism center. It is, instead, the need to answer a simple but vexing question that needs answering as the West seeks a way beyond the Great Recession. Or as MAG Executive Director Dennis Smith puts it: “What do we do to shift to a more diversified economy?” Seeking to answer that question by contemplating a future of global exchange with China and Vietnam and Malaysia via a future Punta Colonet port in Mexico is simply smart and well-informed good judgment.