“It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” Mark Twain
Loop 303 carves new West Valley identity
You can drive for miles on the northern span of Loop 303 and not see another vehicle.
Even as the freeway runs through congested areas, green farmland dominates, the view broken only by the White Tank Mountains, a growing bevy of industrial parks and the tile roofs of the occasional master-planned community.
But soon, officials hope Loop 303 will give the West Valley the chance at a more-sophisticated identity.
As envisioned, the $1.8 billion Loop 303 will turn fields into shopping centers, manufacturing hubs, office parks and enough houses to shelter more than 1 million new residents. It is the first new Valley freeway in more than a decade, an arc of a road that connects Interstate 17 to Interstate 10 and forms what advocates like to call “the spine” of the emerging West Valley.
With workers starting on one of the last interchanges this summer and the mammoth I-10 connection set to open in the fall, the freeway is almost ready to prove its promise.
Just thinking about a Loop 303 unencumbered by construction had developer Ken Gatt practically bouncing on his feet at a recent gathering of the Westmarc business group.
“I just bought property at Loop 303 and Waddell and it is doing so well,” said Gatt, a principal at Phoenix-based Evergreen development company. He held out his arms on an imaginary steering wheel. “When you drive the 303, you can feel it. You can feeeelit! It’s what’s exciting about Phoenix right now.”
That was not always the case. Of all the projects proposed to keep Valley drivers moving over the past 30 years, Loop 303 was the most tenuous, the one most easily dispensed.
“This was the stepchild of the whole system,” former Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs said.
Yet, to the West Valley it meant life.
Scruggs stood in her kitchen one morning in 1994 when the phone rang. Gov. Fife Symington’s chief of staff had a terse message: The governor was eliminating plans for Loop 303 and other West Valley projects.
“I can’t tell you the state of shock I was in,” she said. “I was just outraged.”
Cities in the largely rural West Valley were under-populated and all but powerless in the face of entrenched players in Phoenix and the East Valley.
But without an efficient transportation system, the region could not grow in any rational fashion. That was obvious to government planners at the Maricopa Association of Governments a decade earlier.
Ronald Reagan was starting his second presidential term in 1985 when MAG demographers conceived Loop 303. It formed the outer edge of a new Valley freeway system, along with Loop 101, a Grand Avenue expressway and the Paradise Parkway, an east-west connector just north of Camelback Road that would link State Route 51 in Phoenix to Loop 101 in Glendale.
Maricopa County had fewer freeway routes per capita than any metropolis in the country. A lot of Valley residents liked it that way. Scruggs and other Valley leaders said residents feared the traffic congestion of big cities with ugly highways and elevated transit systems. Midwesterners who retreated from that life hesitated to replicate it in Phoenix. Yet, analysts at MAG already could predict the incoming tide of residents, tens of thousands of them coming in waves for years on end.
“There was this constant kind of passive-aggressiveness to transportation,” said Scruggs, who has lived in the West Valley since 1971. “If you look at the corridors that were planned, what was going on in these places? Nothing. So, the thought was, ‘Why are you going to build all this stuff? There’s nobody out there!’ Now, I think people in office have learned to look to the future.”
A low priority
Dennis Smith, executive director of MAG, remembered engineers telling him in 1985 there were not enough cars on the road to justify building Loop 202.
Smith shook his head at the memory. “Look at what happened!”
But that attitude was about to change with Proposition 300, a 1985 ballot measure asking voters to add a half-cent sales tax to fund a comprehensive freeway system. Voters said yes, overwhelmingly.
Even then, Loop 303, serving what was then called the far West Valley, was the last priority. It ranked well behind Loop 101 and Loop 202, said Eric Anderson, MAG’s transportation director.
Then came the recession of the late 1980s, followed by the savings-and-loan crisis. Voters would go to the polls in 1994 to consider an extension of the tax, but they said no. They were upset in particular with the idea of the Paradise Parkway, which would have plowed through scores of existing houses.
Symington cited the vote and depleted revenues when he took the West Valley projects off the map.
In 1995, the Maricopa County Department of Transportation stepped in and took over the Loop 303 project. Workers laid an interim road to preserve the right of way, land farmers and ranchers had donated early in the project’s conception.
Loop 303 would sit in limbo until voters extended the transportation tax in 2004. By then, Valley residents could see corporate offices and manufacturers clustered around freeways in Mesa and Chandler. In 2004, only the West Valley still struggled to get the original 1985 projects built.
The other regions had moved on.
ADOT spokesman Doug Nintzel has driven reporters and dignitaries over the 39 miles of Loop 303 since it was nothing but a half-completed bridge in the middle of the desert.
“I remember coming out here when these were just dirt roads,” he said on a recent tour. He pointed to a structure that spanned the Agua Fria riverbed. “That bridge was done first. It stood out here like something on a movie set — like a ‘Star Wars’ movie.”
ADOT built the freeway in segments as funding became available.
Driving west, the first sign of habitation is Peoria’s upscale Vistancia development, site of some of the most high-end real estate in the West Valley.
Passing by El Mirage Road, a sign of the future emerges. El Mirage stops abruptly at Loop 303, but a barricade protects the raw desert on the other side of the road. In coming years, El Mirage Road will extend to Lake Pleasant. Work on the intersection’s interchange, a full-scale project with four entrance and exit ramps, will start later this year, Nintzel said.
“It’s remarkable to see this freeway ahead of us and know that just two years ago, this was a two-lane highway,” Nintzel said. “With stop signs!”
To the west are some of the freeway plums already dropped in Goodyear — refrigerator and appliance manufacturer Sub-Zero Inc., and Dick’s Sporting Goods distribution center. They are so close to the interchange that truckers can make a round trip to California in a day.
Other companies and manufacturers are crowding into the southwest Valley near the freeway. Amazon and Macy’s opened distribution centers south of I-10 and Loop 303.
Harry Paxton, Goodyear’s economic development project manager, drove on I-10 to Goodyear in 2007, when he was considering a job offer from the city. He had to exit at Cotton Lane, then a country road.
Paxton chuckles about it now that he can contemplate the new interchange, which will be one of the largest in the state.
“When we get requests for different sites and working with landowners, many of them say they want to be just a couple miles from the freeway,” Paxton said. “This opens up a very convenient route for the workforce. I would say that’s a critical factor.”
He cited figures from CBRE real estate showing that property near Loop 101 tripled the amount of manufacturing square feet, and he expects the same to happen with Loop 303.
In February, Valley real-estate experts chose the top five Arizona growth markets for the Urban Land Institute. Loop 303 came in at No. 4 (behind Chandler’s Price Corridor, the Arizona State University Stadium District and downtown Tucson).
“The 303 is opening up a golden age for the cities that front it,” said Bradley Wright, president of Nations|Wright consulting firm and former vice president and general counsel for SunCor Development Co. “The 303 had created hundreds, if not thousands, of prime-development acres of frontage.”
Wright said he can see a different attitude, a sense of transformation in the region.
“This is not your parent’s West Valley,” he likes to say.
Civic and business leaders expect new residents. But they want businesses along the freeway.
Peoria Mayor Bob Barrett cringes every time he drives on Loop 101 and sees clusters of Peoria homes along the freeway.
“We screwed the pooch,” he said. “That’s where businesses want to locate.”
He and the rest of the city are working on that, negotiating with a regional hospital to locate near the future El Mirage Road interchange.
“Growth follows the freeway,” Barrett said. “This is a whole new freeway and all that land is vacant. What you have here is a portrait that’s blank. You can fill that in and make that picture look like anything you want.”
The West Valley has a number of alluring features for businesses, homebuilders and future residents. Land is more affordable than it is elsewhere in the Valley. Cities that developed later have updated parks, amenities and schools. And now it has transportation.
Surprise gained most of its 130,000 population over the past decade, when the housing boom brought in developers of master-planned communities.
Surprise Mayor Sharon Wolcott does not want growth to be only residential. City leaders for a long time envisioned Surprise as “an enormous bedroom community,” she said.
Now, city leaders expect Loop 303 to bring in jobs, not just rooftops.
“It’s what we’ve been waiting for,” Wolcott said of the freeway. “Ninety-one percent of our workforce commutes out of Surprise. Freeways open the opportunity to locate jobs in our city, to help us be truly a sustainable community.”
Solar companies and other manufacturers are filling in a business park east of the freeway and Macerich Co. made plans in 2005 for a regional mall called Prasada to straddle Loop 303 between Waddell and Cactus roads. The mall is years behind and seems to be perpetually frozen by the Great Recession, but six car dealerships pump revenue into the city and two more are on the way.
“It really truly plugs us into the Valley grid,” Wolcott said.
Loop 303 progress
• 1985: Maricopa County voters approve the “Northwest Loop” freeway as part of Proposition 300, which imposed a half-cent sales tax.
• 1988: The State Transportation Board approves building Loop 303 from I-10 to Grand Avenue. The board approves the section running from I-17 to Grand the next year.
• 1991: The initial two-lane section of Loop 303 between Cactus Road and Grand Avenue opens.
• 1994: Gov. Fife Symington and ADOT remove Loop 303 from the funded portion of the Regional Transportation Plan because of revenue shortfall and the failure of Proposition 400, which would have extended the sales tax.
• 1995: Maricopa County volunteers to become “caretaker” of the freeway.
• 2004: Maricopa County voters approve an updated Proposition 400, extending the half-cent sales tax. ADOT agrees to take over the freeway.
• 2009: ADOT breaks ground on sections of Loop 303 from I-17 to Happy Valley Road.
• 2011: Work begins on Loop 303 between Peoria Avenue and Mountain View Boulevard, just south of Grand Avenue. The freeway segment from I-17 to Happy Valley Road opens to traffic. Work begins on the I-10 interchange.
• 2013: Workers finish the six-lane portion between Peoria and Mountain View Boulevard.
• 2014: ADOT expects to break ground this summer on a project to widen Loop 303 into a six-lane freeway between Grand Avenue and Happy Valley Parkway.
• 2015: ADOT expects to add an interchange at Loop 303 and El Mirage Road and to improve the interchange at Grand Avenue and Loop 303.
• 2016: Work should be complete on the segments between Grand and Happy Valley and the El Mirage and Grand interchanges.
ON THE BEAT
Lesley Wright covers economic development in the West Valley.
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