First of two parts
By Don Hadder
Transportation is the blood that sustains the life of an economy. Without the movement of goods and people, there is no basis for an economy to function. In some cases, this may be highly localized, but in much of our 21st Century world, it is global in scale. This movement of people and goods translates into the movement of value, hence money. This is the lifeblood of our society.
Transportation issues have been integral to the formation and growth of Scottsdale throughout its existence. Winfield Scott was only able to homestead a square mile of land that would later become the core of our city because the railroad was extended to Phoenix in 1888 and 1892. Otherwise, he would not have been able to have a marketplace to sell the products of his land. One of his last efforts to support the growth of the fledgling community of Scottsdale was to build a rail trolley line (much like the famous “Red Line” in southern California) from Phoenix to Scottsdale. Obviously not accomplished before he passed, or since.
Scottsdale, unlike most of the older communities in the Valley, did not have a direct rail connection. It was not on a major highway crossing the state. The road connections at times were tenuous, including a canal bank and a winding trail through the nearby Papago Buttes. Local hotels early on bought special open-air “limousines” to bring customers out to the remote community.
Scottsdale’s mid-century growth occurred with the creation of the major highway and freeway systems of the 1950s and 1960s, and the expansion of air travel for residents and tourists. What had been remote became accessible. Even as transportation advanced, most streets in the downtown area were dirt until the early 1960s, a remnant of its agricultural roots.
Early on as Scottsdale was being organized as a town and then city, transportation issues were recognized. In the earliest plan for the city (prepared by Maricopa County in 1960-1961), downtown parking was identified as a major issue and road connections were deemed inadequate to handle growth.
The 1961 freeways plan prepared by Maricopa County and the City of Phoenix caused a great stir in Scottsdale. It proposed a “Papago Freeway” just south of Belleview Road in southern Scottsdale, the “Indian Bend Freeway” along either the Indian Bend Wash or Pima Road, and the “Paradise Freeway” to be located just north of Lincoln Drive. This would have sliced Scottsdale into many small pieces and hindered the sense of community, in many cases taking out neighborhoods that had just been built. Since there was virtually no local input and this plan would have eliminated neighborhoods that literally had just been built, Scottsdale residents were in uproar.
When Scottsdale prepared its first home-grown General Plan in 1967, the plan did not include any “freeways.” Instead, it included an “expressway” along Pima and Bell that would not have access along it but would have at-grade intersections at each mile point.
At a Scottsdale City Council meeting in the late 1980s, a council member adamantly said “there would never be a freeway in Scottsdale.” The “Belleview” corridor was shifted south into Tempe to the Salt River. The north-south route shifted one-half mile east to the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community. The Bell Road alignment was moved north to the Union Hills alignment. This particular change was beneficial to the large swaths of property owned by the Arizona State Land Department. In the mid-1990s, the “Paradise Parkway” was eliminated from consideration.
This push against freeways was supported by the owner of the Arizona Republic, who wrote a full-page editorial against freeways, believing that this would keep the Phoenix metro area from becoming another “Los Angeles” (a chant that still echoes across the Valley). For almost 20 years, Scottsdale avoided any discussion regarding “freeways.”
The 1967 General Plan was the first comprehensive plan for transportation systems and policies in Scottsdale that was driven by local interests. It included early concepts for trails and paths, landscaped medians in major streets and other “new” concepts.
By the early 1970s, there was concern that the plan was not adequate. In 1974 a special group of the Scottsdale Town Enrichment Program (STEP Forums) convened on the subject of transportation. This effort resulted in a new right-of-way standards / streets plan as well as the first true bikeways plan.
When the Northeast Area Plan (NEAP) was developed in 1976, pre-computer hand-generated traffic projections and distributions were employed. This plan also recognized the importance of Shea Boulevard, the need for Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, and the need for the Thompson Peak Parkway crossing over the Central Arizona Project Canal (CAP).
By 1978 and into the development of the first Airport Area Plan, Scottsdale was working with the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) and their computer-based traffic modeling to test and evaluate transportation plans (one of the first communities in the Valley to do so).
By the late 1980s, it became apparent that not having freeways would diminish the quality of life in Scottsdale. Growth continued and even expanded, despite two economic turn-downs, and Valley streets were choking with congestion. The intersection of Scottsdale and McDowell roads was the most heavily trafficked intersection in the state for most of the decade.
Finally, ADOT and MAG developed and promoted a freeway plan that involved local interests and would receive Valley-wide support. The current freeway corridors that relate to Scottsdale were established by the late 1980s.
Also, in the 1980s, Scottsdale was developing its first Downtown Plan as well as plans for newly annexed areas north of Deer Valley Road. Continued regional modeling was used to assure that those streets that carry traffic through the city were adequately sized. Because of continued and increasing congestion in Old Town, the initial plan included widening Scottsdale Road north and south of Indian School Road to six lanes. This plan would have eliminated numerous vital landmark Scottsdale businesses.
The Downtown Plan created the Goldwater and Drinkwater couplet to remove long-distance regional traffic from the heart of Old Town. This critical roadway change allowed the downtown area to continue to thrive with only local traffic. Transit planning in Scottsdale came of age during this period, as well, including both regional and local bus service.
When the freeway system in and near Scottsdale was completed in the early 2000s, traffic patterns were substantially modified, with regional traffic diverted out of the heart of the community. Previously, the dominant congested streets were the north-south streets of Scottsdale, Hayden and Pima roads. The new dominant streets were the east-west streets connecting to the Pima Freeway of Indian School Road, Shea Boulevard and Cactus Road.
Even though Camelback Road does not connect to the freeway it also became congested because of its direct connection from Scottsdale to Phoenix and the western suburbs. One change that had not been fully anticipated was that drivers increasingly drove more often and for more miles. This is the main reason traffic volumes on many major roads were much greater than predicted.
Valley light rail transit planning in the early 1990s led to service beginning in 2010. Due to intense local special interests, Scottsdale chose to stay out of the system. The 101 and 202 freeways have dramatically benefitted Scottsdale from the late 1990s through today and into the future. Light rail would have equally benefitted commuters out of and into Scottsdale and would have enhanced Scottsdale’s reputation as a tourism and convention destination. Current opposition to light rail transit is one of the few unifying opinions of Scottsdale residents.
Other non-motor-vehicle or non-personal transportation modes in Scottsdale, primarily cycling and buses, function reasonably well for the resources and effort that has been made to support them. Cycling, in particular, is better supported and more accessible in Scottsdale than in many communities across the Valley. The greatest issue often experienced is lack of continuity with adjacent communities. Local bus service functions reasonably well but likely could serve more demand with greater support and resources.
Scottsdale depends on tourists who visit hotels, restaurants and shops, which all depend on service workers. Service workers need to live in Scottsdale or have bus service from their homes outside of Scottsdale. Most cannot afford to live in Scottsdale. From 2011 to 2018, Scottsdale offered free trolley service between Scottsdale Road hotels and Old Town. While the route was intended for tourists, over half of the riders were hotel employees. For Scottsdale’s economy to thrive, tourism service workers need bus service.
For bus service to be utilized, it must be frequent, from early morning to very late evening, and citywide. Would anybody drive on a road system that was only open twice an hour, between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. and only served one-quarter of the city?
Approximately 70 percent of the cost of operating a bus is driver pay. A frequent complaint is that the buses are too large and smaller buses would be more cost-effective. The driver requires the same pay whether they are driving a long or a short bus.
There is angst across the community over the existing transportation systems, particularly regarding streets. Surprisingly, this concern has been consistent since the early 1960s. There never has been a period when local streets have been considered adequate. For a brief, few years when the 101 and 202 were first opened, they were considered acceptable. However, the 101 has been widened from its initial six total lanes to a minimum of 10, with many segments at 12 total lanes. It remains congested four to six hours daily.
In the greatest part, the current local street system handles traffic demands well. The capacity issues tend to occur during peak hours and in particular at links that access the Pima Freeway. Freeway accesses have traditionally been bottlenecks. Of the 20 highest congested Scottsdale roadway segments in 2018, 10 are within one mile of the 101. The two highest congested street segments are Scottsdale Road, immediately north of the Pima Freeway, and Shea Boulevard, immediately east of the Pima Freeway. Further widening of each of these segments is prohibitively expensive and would likely never become wide enough to eliminate congestion.
Certainly, not all streets in Scottsdale are adequate. Several are not yet fully improved per the 2008 Transportation Plan, which was updated in 2016. The November 2016 sales tax increase approved by voters includes 19 identified roadway segments, with 70 percent of the funding provided by MAG. All of these improvements will occur by 2026, with most in the next three years. However, in most cases, the current streets are adequate to manage current traffic demands. Of the 323 Scottsdale major roadway segments analyzed with 2018 data, 10 percent are over capacity, 30 percent are between capacity and half of capacity, and 60 percent are below half.
Compare Scottsdale streets to those of other communities. Contemplate living in Los Angeles for two weeks, driving several times daily. Contemplate living in Gila Bend for two weeks. So, if the Scottsdale street system is Goldilocks, functioning well, better than in many communities, why is there general dissatisfaction with the streets?
A large part of the answer focuses on expectations. A great number of drivers expect to drive at or above the speed limit at all times, to get through every signal on the first cycle when they arrive at an intersection, never wait to turn left, never be delayed by following a right-turning vehicle and have no other interference in their path. These expectations are appropriate for a rural or exurban area – not an active major metropolitan area.
The challenge is managing expectations. Providing the public consistent information about the transportation system is likely part of this management. Another part may be clearly communicating available options in providing and managing transportation facilities along with their effectiveness, their costs – both initial and long term – and all associated advantages and disadvantages. Transportation services and systems are highly complex and difficult to comprehend. The more pertinent and reliable information available, the more the public can appreciate the difficulty of improving and operating transportation systems.
For example, we all bemoaned the delays caused by the Pima Freeway widening between Shea and McKellips when the construction was occurring. Now we scarcely remember those 10 months. Currently we are irritated by the construction of the Pima Freeway, west of Hayden, even though there are usually three lanes-per-direction. Eight months from now when there are five lanes-per-direction, we’ll be happy.
In addition, there are impacts of our transportation systems across our communities that need to be kept in consideration:
- Slow and congested travel increases the amount of air pollutants that are generated. The Valley has had issues with air quality over a half century, and the health problems resulting from air pollution add costs to individuals and businesses, reduce productivity and in some cases may influence business location choices.
- Transportation congestion can also lead to other health concerns, stress and less time for people to spend with their families and friends.
- Ineffective transportation systems can also reduce business productivity, increase direct costs and lessen ability to discover and take advantage of opportunities that arise.
It is in everyone’s interest to have transportation systems that are effective, well run, well maintained and safe. In a dynamic and interesting urban environment, constancy and perfection will never be achieved. Nonetheless, there should always be a focus toward achieving these goals.
Next: Planning for the future
Don Hadder is a retired city planner, long-time resident of Scottsdale and a local historical resource.