More than 350 people turned out to offer opinions and get their first look at plans for the Twin Peaks-Linda Vista Interchange at Interstate 10, a $57 million project that Marana planners say will vastly improve traffic conditions in Continental Ranch and regions beyond.

In a town where fewer than 300 people voted in the last mayoral and council election, the attendance at the open house held at the Sunflower Community Center Oct. 20 was a pleasant surprise for officials from Marana and the Arizona Department of Transportation.

"I think it really shows there are a lot of people in the town who are interested and understand the need for the project," said Farhad Moghimi, Marana's town engineer. "We're very pleased. We need this kind of public support to make the interchange a reality. That, and the fantastic partnership we've forged with ADOT."

The interchange, expected to begin construction in 2006 and be completed two years later, would connect Twin Peaks Road west of I-10 to Linda Vista Boulevard on the east.

Currently the only access to the interstate and the only east-west thoroughfares in the area are the interchanges at Avra Valley and Cortaro roads, located four miles apart.

For commuters plagued by traffic back-ups caused by the passing of trains on the Union Pacific tracks east of I-10, the new interchange would also serve as only the second grade-separated interchange in the town limits.

The interchange at Orange Grove Road, which carries traffic below the railroad, is located on Marana's extreme southern boundary and more than three miles south of the town's population center of Continental Ranch.

The project, a joint venture between Marana and ADOT, will have a series of significant geographic and regulatory hurdles to clear before becoming a reality but planners expressed confidence the interchange would be built.

"It's firm. The funding is there and we have it programmed into our planning process and everything is moving along on schedule," said Dennis Alvarez, ADOT's Tucson district engineer.

The interchange, which is still being designed, will have to begin with a raised road on the west side to cross the Santa Cruz River flood zone and will need a separate bridge to cross the river channel.

The span across I-10 will have to stretch far enough to clear the interstate, the railroad tracks, and the Cortaro-Marana Irrigation District canal that runs between them. The roadway will then have to duck under the electricity transmission lines strung along the eastern frontage road to connect to Linda Vista.

Ultimately, Linda Vista would link to an improved Camino de la Mañana extending northeast toward Tangerine Road and the homes of Dove Mountain, according to Marana's town transportation plan.

Marana and ADOT will evenly split the $28 million cost of the actual interchange, while Marana will foot the $29 million cost of the bridge over the Santa Cruz ad other needed roadway improvements.

Much of Marana's funding is expected to come from a $2,435 - per home impact fee the town levied on developers in the Continental Ranch area in 2001.

Construction of the interchange is also contingent on federal approval, Moghimi said. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will have to sign off on permits to modify the river channel and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have to agree to construction in proposed habitat for the endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy owl east of I-10.

"That's part of the reason we need the public's support on this project. We're required by the federal government to show that there is a need for the interchange, that people want it to be built," Moghimi said. "And from where I sit today, particularly with the public support we saw at the open house, I think the interchange will be a reality."

Comments from citizens who attended the open house were being compiled into a summary that is expected to be completed next week. Moghimi said that a cursory review of the comments indicates "overwhelming" support for the project.

Interviews with people who attended the open house and browsed the displays of aerial photographs, charts and graphs that detailed plans for the interchange indicated most were supportive of the project.

"I think it's refreshing to see the town taking action on something before it gets to be a huge problem. They understand more growth is coming and they're taking steps to prepare for it and that's terrific," said Rick Westfall, who owns a firewood business south of Continental Ranch.

Some residents expressed concern about the increase in traffic along Linda Vista the interchange would bring.

"We live on Linda Vista. Will there be sound walls on Linda Vista? Will Linda Vista become a four-lane roadway?" a person wrote anonymously on a poster board set up at the open house for questions and comments.

Others were concerned with how increased traffic on Twin Peaks would affect people living at the nearby Sunflower retirement community and students attending Twin Peaks Elementary School, 7995 W. Twin Peaks Road.

Twin Peaks Principal Jane Ballesteros said Marana Unified School District administrators would be meeting with town planners next week.

"The town of Marana is being very proactive. I don't think there has been any specific concerns identified, they just want to keep us in the loop during the planning stages in case there are any concerns or problems," Ballesteros said.

The idea of an interchange between Twin Peaks and Linda Vista had been discussed off and on since the early 1990s as building in Continental Ranch boomed and traffic became increasingly snarled.

Ric Canfield and other angry Continental Ranch-area residents helped solidify the concept during contentious public hearings for the Continental Reserve subdivision that were held in late 1999 and early 2000.

"It's a project that has to be done. People out here have been advocating for it for quite sometime. We've said all along that Cortaro is not going to be able to handle the kind of traffic that is expected when subdivisions like Continental Reserve come on-line," said Canfield in an interview after the open house.

Residents worried that the Continental Reserve project, which initially planned to place 2,257 homes in the already densely packed Continental Ranch area, would overwhelm the only two major arteries for the neighborhood across the Santa Cruz - Cortaro and Ina roads.

Marana approved the Continental Reserve project in 2000 after reducing its density by 15 percent and offering residents a plan to widen Cortaro and a promise to seek funding for the interchange.

Moghimi agreed the interchange is necessary to handle the pace of growth expected in Marana.

"The plan offers a solution not just for existing traffic congestion, but also for the future growth we know is coming. Cortaro Road is providing some relief right now, but if the plans for the interchange did not go forward, the entire traffic infrastructure there would see tremendous congestion," he said.

Marana plans more public meetings with the next one scheduled for early 2004 when the initial design concept is drafted, Moghimi said. Final design plans are expected to be completed in 2005.

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