Of all the road construction projects currently planned or underway in Marana, town engineers knew from the get go that improvements to Cortaro Road, the main thoroughfare leading to and from the burgeoning Continental Ranch subdivisions, would be a difficult hurdle.

Sandwiched as they are between the Tucson Mountains to the west and the Santa Cruz River to the east, residents depend on Cortaro, and to a lesser extent Ina Road, as life lines to Interstate 10 and points beyond.

"Continental Ranch is like a 6,000-home cul-de-sac. The folks living out there don't have a lot of different options to get in and out," said Marana's Development Services Director Jim DeGrood.

So as surprising as it may be to frustrated commuters who brave the rush hour delays and negotiate the barricaded slalom course that Cortaro Road has become, town officials are pleased that things have gone even smoother than expected.

"It's gone surprisingly well," said Marana Town Council Member Jim Blake, a Continental Ranch Resident. "It's coming in pretty much on time and below budget, and in fact, may be done earlier than we had expected."

Hunter Contracting Co. is nearing completion of the year-long, $6.6 million project to expand Cortaro's two lanes to four for a 1.1 mile stretch between I-10 and Silverbell Road.

The road improvements are expected to significantly reduce the traffic congestion that has plagued the area for years.

As it stands now, workers expect to have critical areas such as the the Cortaro and Silverbell intersection open by the end of next week, DeGrood said.

The related construction of a $3 million westbound bridge needed to carry Cortaro's two new lanes over the Santa Cruz is expected to be completed later this month.

Borderland Construc-tion Co. was scheduled to complete the project in January, but asked for and was granted a 30 day extension because of weather delays they experienced.

"For all intents and purposes the bridge is completed. They're just adding the gee-gaws like sidewalk hand rails and stuff, and the road is already moving up to meet with the bridge," DeGrood said.

The last phase of work has required significant detours, with drivers seeking access to eastbound I-10 routed down Arizona Pavilions Drive to the frontage road, and westbound I-10 access from Cortaro routed through Arizona Pavilions to the frontage road for access via the Avra Valley on ramp.

White-knuckled commuters are not the only ones to welcome the project's anticipated completion, according to Marana Chamber of Commerce Director Kelle Maslyn.

"Some of the business owners in the area, such as McDonald's and Burger King, have reported a drop off in business," Maslyn said.

The chamber has been encouraging visitors to patronize the businesses that are concentrated at I-10 and Cortaro and Silverbell and Cortaro, while at the same time warning them they may face delays, Maslyn said. She's also working with the town and business owners to place more prominent signs directing drivers to businesses for the duration of the construction.

Marana has already gone into it's budget reserve for an additional $75,000 beyond the cost of the roadwork to pay for more signs and barricades, said Marana Finance Director Roy Cuaron.

The money was also used to place off-duty police officers at particularly congested areas during peak travel time, and to remove barricades quickly as routes changed, DeGrood said.

Drivers can also see trenches being dug along Cortaro on the east side of I-10 that herald the next phase of the road's expansion to four lanes from the interstate to Cerius Stravenue.

The $900,000 project is expected to be completed in the spring.

Even after the widening of Cortaro on both sides of the interstate, a tapering of Cortaro will still occur under the narrow I-10 interchange, but will be adjusted so three of the existing five lanes will be west bound or dedicated turn lanes on to the interstate, and two lanes will be east bound, DeGrood said.

"It's a matter of maximizing what we have to work with", DeGrood said "This gets people to the interstate, where most of the traffic is headed for."

Pima County's plans to widen it's portion of Cortaro to the east, using funds from a 1997 bond election, are delayed while it seeks federal approval for the work that could effect the habitat of pygmy owls protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Other road projects underway or planned in Marana include:

Repair work to the bridges at the Marana (Trico-Marana) and Tangerine interchanges, and the bridge over the Canada del Oro and Rillito washes between Ina and Orange Grove Road. The work will effect travel on I-10 only during weekends. The Arizona Department of Transportation Department will begin work on the bridges March 1. A spokesperson for ADOT said the state expects to announce lane and ramp closures periodically while the work is occurring. The repairs are expected to be completed by the end of April.

Marana's finishing touches on the $863,725 widening of Sandario and Emigh roads near Marana High School that began June 18.

Widening Silverbell Road to four lanes between Ina and Cortaro at a cost of $4.1 million. Construction by the town is expected to begin in the spring of 2003 and last about a year.

Widening Ina Road to four lanes between Silverbell and I-10 at a cost that has yet to be determined. Construction by Marana is anticipated to begin in the spring of 2004 and take a year to complete.

Continuing design work for the $60 million construction of a new I-10 interchange at Twin Peaks and Linda Vista roads by Marana and ADOT that is expected to begin construction in 2006.

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