The dirt roads once built to support a farming community in Old Marana are evolving into a network of modern-day routes that will serve a rapidly growing urban area

September 14, 2005 - In the early 1960s, the United States government was on a fast track, constructing an efficient interstate highway system that connected most of the major urban centers throughout the nation. In the process, Interstate 10 tore through Tucson and, consequently, a tiny Northwest farming community known as Marana, where vast tracts of pavement left their footprints on a small town's heart while passing through to Phoenix and Los Angeles.

With mixed emotions, Marana residents and small-shop owners made way for the advent of I-10 next to where a two-lane Casa Grande Highway already existed. Many of the businesses fronting the old highway were razed to make way for the interstate, which displaced everything in a broad swath along the edge of the road.

"To a large extent, what's now the frontage road on the west side of current I-10 was the original Casa Grande Highway," said Jim DeGrood, Marana's executive assistant to the town manager. "If you drive along that, you'll see a lot of locations where, crossing over the canal structure, they actually had old bridges, and those may have been driveways into businesses. You can see a lot of vestiges of the old road and the old area just in what you see along the roadside."

Marana Mayor Ed Honea, born in 1947, was entering Marana High School around the time I-10 tore through and remembers the old stores that once lined Casa Grande Highway. A collection of shops - simply referred to as "The Mercantile" because of the nearby Pima Mercantile Co. - boasted a dime store, grocery store, small tavern, post office, barbershop and sheriff's substation.

"We had kind of a little strip center here in Marana, and people had access to it from the freeway. They just used to call it The Mercantile. It was the only shopping thing there was out in the Valley," Honea said. "When I-10 came through, it really destroyed what was the Marana town center, at that time, because all of those buildings were torn down to facilitate the highway."

One of the last remaining pieces of evidence that The Mercantile existed can be found today by looking closely at an old building near Sanders and Grier roads where, in recent years, the town's magistrate court stood. There, one can find a mixture of colored bricks that were taken from The Mercantile to build a bar and restaurant that was later converted into a courthouse.

Longtime residents remember this story of I-10, which ripped apart the only business district Old Marana ever knew. As several shops and gas stations relocated or closed altogether, Marana lost not only its sense of place but also its downtown and its main street. Even more personal to some, the old Marana High School had to be demolished to make way for I-10 and was rebuilt where Marana Middle School is today.

Forty years later, Marana hasn't forgotten its past. Close to the once exuberant business district where families flocked and a small community thrived, Marana once again has a main street that will anchor a new downtown and a new sense of place. In the near future, a wide mixture of shops and homes are expected to sprout along the now-empty sidelines of Marana Main Street and Civic Center Drive, where the Marana Municipal Complex opened this year.

It's here that a new vibrant downtown area, known as the Town Center, is expected to anchor an urban northern Marana community that will grow rapidly and require a major overhaul of the town's road system. The Northwest Transportation Plan, one of three interconnecting plans unveiled at a town meeting two weeks ago, aims to meet these demands through the construction of new I-10 interchanges, new roadways and new loop routes that will accommodate residents, as well as regional commuters, in northern Marana.

"Right now, we're trying to develop the urban fabric and we're trying to put in place the infrastructure to create what we believe will be a sustainable community," DeGrood said. "The immediate area surrounding town hall is really kind of the core of our mixed-use community that we want to see developed, and as you go northerly toward the Marana interchange, that's going to be our downtown Marana. It was originally our downtown and we hope to restore it in terms of its prominence within the broader community."

For the past nine months, the town has collaborated with Scottsdale-based architectural firm Swaback Partners to plan the land use configurations for 38,000 acres in northwest Marana and develop design standards for future neighborhoods. Painting on a clean canvas, town officials envision a colorful mixture of commercial and residential properties comprising its town core, with an efficient system of roadways that will move traffic in and around an increasingly urban Town Center. Ironically, all of this might not have been possible without Marana's frontage along the interstate.

Because most of the plans are just being unveiled, many residents still might not know of the sweeping changes that will happen when the town gives its road system a major facelift between now and 2025. Town officials have been working closely with consultants to plan a large system of arterial and collector roadways that will serve Marana long into the foreseeable future, and so far there seems to be little resistance to the idea.

Throughout the rest of this month, a series of public meetings will be held to showcase the town's vision for northwest Marana and the Town Center, including a circulation plan that identifies major roadways, their alignments and the necessary right-of-way needed for the town's buildout. Town officials expect Marana's population to grow to 100,000 by 2030 and explode to 250,000 by 2050. Earlier this year, there were about 24,000 residents living in Marana, which now has a population of more than 28,000.

Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said he's proud of the hard work his staff and council members have done to identify the town's future transportation needs. In addition to commercial development that has been speculated to include everything from a full-scale hospital to a shopping mall, Reuwsaat said he expects as many as 26,000 new homes in northern Marana by 2050.

"If you look at the last two years of building permits issued, the year before this we had about 1,250 single-family residential and this last year we had 1,850. That translates into an additional 5,000 people and a heck of a lot more road trips," he said. "We do not expect that growth is going to slow down out here."

Thousands of acres of privately owned farmland that are considered highly conducive to large-scale development are still prevalent in northern Marana. Masses of cotton fields and vacant desert are expected to invite developers to help build the town's vision of a new Marana, a concept much different from the longstanding image of Marana as a dusty farm town on Tucson's northwest side.

"While we have pretty much an open slate here - with not much development but a lot of it planned to happen - we're doing the necessary planning to make sure we acquire the appropriate right-of-ways in the appropriate locations so the roads can be built when they're needed," Reuwsaat said. "It's about doing some sensible planning for what we really want this place to look like when it's built out so we don't have to go back in and take out backyards and take out businesses to provide the capacity for the transportation improvements that are needed."

The roads in northern Marana, originally built to support an agricultural community, were never designed to handle the growth the town will see in the coming years. Named after the families and farmers of Old Marana, it wasn't long ago that roads such as Barnett, Luckett, Moore, Lon Adams, Wentz, Kirby Hughes and Sanders were dirt.

Today, these roads are being upgraded and improved, and new roads are being named after more farmers such as Clark, Pacheco and Gladden. Old roads such as Tangerine, Avra Valley, Sanders and Marana are increasingly becoming regionally important. Sanders Road, south of the Santa Cruz River, is shown in proposed plans as a potentially six-lane road.

Dennis Dolan, a manager in the town's operations department, who has lived in the Marana area his whole life, had a hand in paving and chip-sealing many of the town's old farm roads while working as superintendent of public works in the mid-1990s. Many of the old roads weren't even paved until Marana began generating sales tax revenues after annexing into the business corridor near Ina and Thornydale roads.

"When I started here, we had a lot of dirt roads and, over the first six years, we tried to get rid of all the dust pollutants," said Dolan, who started working for the town in 1995. "We were out there chip-sealing all the roads possible."

A 1971 graduate of Marana High School, Dolan, 53, grew up near Sunset and Silverbell roads at the very south end of town's current boundaries. Like many longtime residents who still remember when Ina Road was a two-lane dirt path, Dolan remembers a much different Marana than the one he knows today.

"I used to horseback ride across to where there were cotton fields here before Continental Ranch was even put in," he recalled, adding that Silverbell was just a two-lane road back then and it was entirely dirt past Rattlesnake Pass.

With more than 17 miles of 1-10 frontage in Marana, town officials know they'll have to make sure road upgrades are done in conjunction with interchange improvements. The town has big plans for most of the six I-10 interchanges in Marana, and three completely new interchanges are planned for the future.

While the Tangerine Road interchange is currently the preferred method for commuters traveling into northern Marana, DeGrood said the Marana interchange will be the most heavily trafficked interchange in Marana in the future.

Commuters entering town from the Marana exit currently come into a confluence of roadways as they proceed west, just before being spun south onto Sandario Road. When the interstate was originally constructed, the interchange was aligned with Sandario Road to serve the existing businesses there.

Considering development coming into play beyond Marana's western limits, a large population is expected to use Marana Road to come through the northern part of town, DeGrood said. As such, the Marana interchange will be realigned with a potentially six-lane Marana Road that will serve as a major thoroughfare.

"The Sanders Grove development and what's happening immediately at that interchange will probably dictate that we build a four-lane road within the next few years," DeGrood said. "But 20 to 25 years from now, the traffic may be so much on it that we expand it again."

While the town has considered several options for remodeling the Marana interchange to ensure efficient traffic flow, DeGrood said maintaining quality access to businesses along Sandario Road is another priority.

"Right now, many of the businesses are close to the roadway. If we make the road wider, we may be obliterating the people we're trying to save," he said. "So we may need to look at de-emphasizing that."

Dealing with the Tangerine Road interchange will involve tackling several issues simultaneously. Right now, motorists are heavily dependent on the two-way west frontage road to get into northern Marana. As traffic increases, the Arizona Department of Transportation's General Plan calls for turning the west frontage road into a one-way route into Tucson, forcing the town to find alternative ways to distribute northbound traffic coming off the Tangerine Road exit (See map at left).

Because the distance stretches for miles between some interchanges in Marana, including four miles between Tangerine and Marana roads, the interstate has been Marana's unofficial main street for some time.

"We are, as far as I know, the only community other than Flagstaff that has to deal with interchanges four miles apart, and Flagstaff doesn't even have their community right up against the freeway," said Dave Parker, a Continental Ranch resident and former planning and zoning commissioner, who has served on several committees that have examined road issues in Marana. "Every other community would be screaming if they had to deal with exits two miles apart here and there."

DeGrood said the town is working to become less reliant on the freeway, because the interstate highway system is not intended to carry large quantities of commuting traffic bound for destinations only a few miles away.

"The Federal Highway Administration would definitely prefer to see a strong local road system to compliment it, and that's something that we're committed to," he said.

Roads shown in the town's transportation plans east of I-10 are currently nonexistent, for the most part, but will serve a valuable purpose when developments such as San Lucas and The Villages at Tortolita Mountain Ranch start picking up. The latter development, also known as The Zipprich Project, could boast as many as 7,000 new homes and calls for a new interchange south of the existing Pinal Airpark interchange.

The new interchange is expected to tie into Luckett Road and continue south into a loop route that swings down into Moore Road. Town officials say the cloverleaf design at the Pinal Airpark interchange is substandard and poses a safety hazard by introducing vehicles traveling at 25 mph, and on very short ramps, into traffic traveling 75 mph.

Within the next 15 years, the town plans to construct another interchange at Moore Road, giving residents and commuters better access to communities such as Gladden Farms. Because of flood waters that run through the area, DeGrood said, the interchange likely will be constructed with Moore Road extending over I-10 and the railroad tracks.

On a similar note, radical changes to the Ina Road interchange are expected to include construction of a bridge over the interstate and railroad tracks. The project, tentatively scheduled to begin in 2008, could take up to two years to complete, which likely will burden some local businesses and commuters.

During construction, the town is considering closing Ina Road from the Santa Cruz River to the freeway with traffic detours to the Orange Grove Road or Cortaro Road interchanges. In conjunction with that project, the town plans to replace the old Ina Road bridge over the Santa Cruz River and widen Ina Road to six lanes from I-10 to the Cañada Del Oro Wash.

"That's a project or an issue that we hope to get addressed in the relatively near future," DeGrood said. "The Ina Road interchange is something that the Arizona Department of Transportation would like to reconstruct in four or five years. In fact, they've got it shown in 2008, but I think with the amount of work they've got through midtown Tucson it'll be a challenge for them to do that."

DeGrood said ADOT is interested in improving the Cortaro Road interchange, where short-term improvements include adding an additional eastbound lane under the freeway. Within the next year, Cortaro Road will be widened to four lanes from I-10 to Camino de Oeste.

Construction of the new Twin Peaks Road interchange is expected to start next year to relieve some of the congestion from Continental Ranch residents who are currently funneled down Silverbell Road to a single interchange at Cortaro Road. The project includes extending a four-lane Twin Peaks Road across the Santa Cruz River to a new interchange, which will be fed from the east by Camino de Mañana and Linda Vista Boulevard.

Continental Ranch resident Jim Wilkinson said the Twin Peaks Road interchange will be a blessing to him and his neighbors, lessening the burden of their daily routines. Wilkinson, a tow truck driver, said he leaves his house at 7:15 a.m. each morning and hopes he's ahead of the pack when he pulls onto Silverbell from Somerton Drive.

"Trying to get out of here, during what would be considered rush hour, is just impossible," he said.

While many of his neighbors turn right and head northbound on Silverbell before making a U-turn to head south, Wilkinson said he braves the fierce traffic and turns left onto Silverbell. Avoiding the backup at Cortaro Road, he continues south to Ina Road, which takes him to his destination.

"If I can get to Somerton and be the first in line, I don't have a problem because I pull out in front of people. I figure if you've got breaks, you better use 'em because I'm not sitting there for a half-hour," Wilkinson said.

Designs for the Twin Peaks Road interchange have been drawn up since last September, and the town is waiting for environmental clearances to move forward with the project, DeGrood said.

"Once we receive those, we're going to go at a very brisk pace to concluding the design and getting under construction," he said. "Unfortunately, the environmental process takes a lot of time and, at this point, ADOT has a very short staff in that area, so it's taking longer than we'd like."

Wilkinson, who sometimes ventures as far north as the Avra Valley Road interchange to avoid Cortaro Road, remains less than optimistic that the project will start anytime soon. He said he'd be willing to bet that half the people funneling down Silverbell to Cortaro would use a back way out if it were available, whether in the form of a new interchange or just an extension of Twin Peaks Road to the frontage road.

"They could have built a back way out of here for frontage road. They've just stuck it to us out here. It's terrible," he said. "We're just as dumb for building or buying out here, but you didn't expect what they've done."

Marana could get a boost on five major road improvement projects, including the Twin Peaks Road and Ina Road interchanges, if the Regional Transportation Authority is successful in getting voter approval of a countywide half-cent sales tax increase next year. The uncertainty of whether the RTA plan will be approved has been a hanging question for town officials who say the increase is needed to fund about $1.9 billion in necessary transportation projects throughout Pima County.

"They've got a suite of projects that can really make a huge impact on the whole region, and we think Marana's well represented with projects that are very relevant," said DeGrood, an engineer and Marana's representative on the RTA transportation planning committee.

The RTA plan, which will go before voters in May, calls for improving and extending Camino de Mañana north from Linda Vista Boulevard to Tangerine Road, where Camino de Mañana eventually will be a four-lane roadway tying into Dove Mountain Boulevard. DeGrood said some people underestimate the regional significance of the Camino de Mañana extension into Dove Mountain.

"If you're at the corner of Dove Mountain and Tangerine and you want to get down to the freeway to go south, you save six minutes and six miles by this road," he said. "That's a pretty substantial benefit to people in that area."

The RTA plan calls for widening Tangerine Road to four lanes from I-10 to La Cañada Drive and widening Silverbell Road to three and four lanes between Grant and Ina roads. The town plans to widen Silverbell to four lanes from Ina to Cortaro roads with added drainage next year.

In contrast to northern Marana, where the town is working with a clean slate, road improvements in southern Marana could be costly as the town tries to play catch-up with growth. In northern Marana, town officials are being proactive by getting developers to build roads wide enough, and set aside enough right-of-way, so they don't have to tear up utilities to make improvements after development occurs.

"What was done by us and a lot of people in the past is maybe you would build just a two-lane roadway through a project and not have that foresight to say, 'Well, if another project like this is built adjacent, this road's going to need to be four lanes,'" Honea said. "What we're doing now is we're getting the entire roadway dedicated upfront for four lanes, even if we only build two lanes. We're putting the infrastructure and everything in the ground to set it up so we don't have to go in and tear everything up to widen the road in the future."

DeGrood said an extension of Regency Plaza Street from Ina Road south across the Cañada Del Oro Wash, tying into Costco Drive, would help relieve some of the turning movements at the intersection of Thornydale and Ina roads. Thornydale Road is expected to be widened to six lanes from south of Orange Grove to the CDO Wash early next year, which could have a negative impact on businesses there.

"Does it cause problems for business people? Yes, it does," Honea said. "But is it necessary because of the enormous amount of traffic in that area? Yes, it is."

Even though several businesses were plowed under with the development of I-10 many years ago, the town is hoping to once again foster a unique sense of place with the development that is expected to occur in northern Marana. A few finishing touches remain to be made on the town's future downtown streets, including extending Civic Center Drive east through Ora Mae Harn Park and then south, where it will tie into the new alignment of Lon Adams Road in Gladden Farms.

An extension of Marana Main Street, north of where it currently ends at Grier Road, has been slowed by a pending legal dispute between residents who are arguing over who owns that property. The town needs to acquire right-of-way there for its plans to wind Marana Main Street north and then west into the Tangerine Farms loop road, which will then connect into Sanders Road.

Meanwhile, town officials are still looking for partners in the building community to support their vision of a new Marana.

"It is a challenge to try to get people to see the vision and invest in the future," DeGrood said. "A lot of people feel like the mixed-use community that we're proposing is a little risky. Right now, what the building community is offering is single-family detached housing on a 6,000- to 8,000-square-foot lot, and we're talking about something different. We're talking about something that is more unique than that."

Because Marana's road plans will require millions of dollars to reach fruition, funding is an issue the town still must address.

"There's definitely a funding shortfall that still remains, and we've never said anything but that," DeGrood said. "We've done quite a bit with impact fees, we've done a local half-cent sales tax for regional roads, and the RTA is something that would also be beneficial because it'll bring in different improvements. We're doing what we can to try to put as many pieces into place as we possibly can."

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