They have. Land, freeways, development — and money — fit Arizona like an expertly-tailored Armani.
And I-11, once but a twinkle in power-brokers' eyes, is now shaping up to be Arizona's latest El Dorado jackpot.
It also sets up a fight over economic growth, development, and trade on the one hand, and habitats, scarce natural resources, and Native communities on the other.
About three decades ago, real estate magnate Mike Ingram rustled up support for the expansion of a state highway to connect an unincorporated community to Phoenix on land purchased from western Hollywood movie star John Wayne.
At the time, the town of Maricopa had several hundred residents, State Highway 347 was a two-lane road, and Ingram's proposed Rancho El Dorado community was 1,600 acres. Since then, Maricopa, which lies in Pinal County, has grown to 52,127 residents, according to the most recent U.S. Census.
Much of that growth was spurred by the widening of the road into a four-lane highway. Property developers played a key role in the Maricopa Road Association and raised money towards its development, leveraging federal and state government highway funds.
If I-11, a proposed massive freeway cutting across Arizona, comes to fruition, Ingram’s company El Dorado and his fellow property developers could strike gold once again.
Ingram declined an interview for this story.
City of the Future
Douglas Ranch, Ingram's brainchild in Buckeye, is a 34,000-acre development that expects to begin selling lots for homes next year. The Houston-based Howard Hughes Corporation acquired Douglas Ranch for $600 million this year, but the local developers are partners in making the community happen.
Two local developers each have a 25% stake in the first phase of the project known as Trillium. Once completed, Douglas Ranch could have 300,000 residents. The joint venture includes former NBA Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo through JDM Partners, who offered to donate the land where the road would pave over the desert.
“We are creating a city of the future,” boasted Colangelo about Douglas Ranch.
Buckeye’s entitled land can support an ultimate buildout population of over 1.5 million, which would make it the second-most populous city in Arizona, after Phoenix. Already, Buckeye is Arizona’s largest city by land area, with over 640 square miles, dwarfing Phoenix's 517 square miles.
Buckeye's city limits would stretch from Wickenburg in the north to Gila Bend in the south by 2040.
Across more than two dozen master-planned communities there are plans for 800,000 residents in the coming years and upwards of 90 percent would commute out of the city for work.
Interstate 11 would serve as a north-south bypass around central Phoenix. It would run through the heart of that area, in the Hassayampa Valley about 40 miles west of downtown. It also would serve as a key new Mexico-to-Canada trade corridor, relieving congested routes such as I-5 and I-25.
Howard Hughes Corp. sees I-11 as a "catalyst for growth," but suggested that the community's success isn't contingent upon the new road. The company sees the community as a project over the next 40 to 50 years.
"Unlike other developers who come into a community, build, and then leave within five to seven years, we invest for the long-term," said David O'Reilly, CEO of The Howard Hughes Corp. in a statement.
Interstate 11 is projected to pump between $30 billion and $60 billion into the region's economy. There are more than two dozen housing developments planned in Buckeye.
The Maricopa Association of Governments, a regional planning organization, estimated that Buckeye is expected to grow from 73,000 to 305,400 by 2040. To keep pace with such growth, I-10 would require dozens of new interchanges, MAG projected. Buckeye is already growing rapidly and land prices have been on the rise.
“We’re seeing a significant amount of new industrial development,” said Dave Roderique, deputy city manager and economic development director at The City of Buckeye, about distribution, warehousing, and logistics companies. “We’re already hearing companies are very interested in transportation systems and we’re getting quite a few businesses now because of the possibility of I-11. A lot of companies are looking at this area out of California.”
Buckeye had advocated for I-11 to be built nearby I-10 but plans generally call for the two interstates to merge for several miles. Current maps show the two interstates crossing west of Hassayampa River, about 40 miles from downtown Phoenix.
For years we had the Inner Loop (Loop 101), then we got the Outer Loop (Loop 202), and more recently the Other Outer Loop (Loop 303). Interstate 11 could be the Way Out There Loop.
Buckeye hopes the new freeway will attract more employers and development from industrial to retail.
The Arizona Department of Transportation is already widening a stretch of I-10 in Buckeye which has been needed for years, Roderique said. Future access to water is a consideration the city has already planned for as the population grows.
“Right now we have enough water to triple in size,” he said. “As we grow larger the city will be looking at additional water resources.”
But there is already concern that there won't be enough water for Douglas Ranch itself, never mind other communities, despite the developer's bullishness that the aquifer will handle the growth.
"If we did not trust that the future of Douglas Ranch is one of generational success, with enough water to support a thriving new community of 300,000 residents, we would not be here," said O'Reilly.
Growing population, traffic congestion, and economic development were key reasons federal officials decided that the new interstate is needed. Phoenix and Las Vegas have been among the fastest-growing regions in the country.
While the concept for a new freeway to foster trade south to north from Mexico along the Intermountain West towards Canada has been a dream since the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s, plans for I-11 are closer to reality than ever.
Several other major housing developments are banking on the future freeway in the Buckeye area
These include Belmont, Spurlock Ranch, Festival Ranch, and Silver Rock. The 25,000-acre development of Belmont and 2,800-acre Spurlock Ranch developments, with tens of thousands of homes planned, are owned by companies affiliated with Bill Gates. Belmont is still in the planning stages. Local developers in charge of the project note that a future I-11 is “very important," but declined an interview for this story.
“Belmont illustrates that Arizona remains at the leading edge of trends in American urban planning and development keying off of advances in solar power and electric distribution systems, autonomous auto testing, broadband, and data centers,” said Larry Yount, manager of Belmont Partners, who also leads LKY Development Company in Scottsdale.
Some big players have already cashed out. Scottsdale real estate developer Jerry Bisgrove, the founder of Stardust Real Estate, sold 10,000 acres in Buckeye for $80 million to California developer Dolphin Partners for the Tartesso master-planned community several years ago.
Big Political Clout
Developers involved in properties along the I-11 corridor are big political players and donors especially to U.S. representatives who could have sway with federal funding, records show.
Jerry Bisgrove donated to former Democratic U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor and former Republican U.S. Reps. Rick Renzi and JD Hayworth, alongside Republican congressional candidate Steve Moak.
Colangelo has donated to numerous political campaigns including Republicans U.S Rep. Andy Biggs and State Sen. David Gowan. But the sports business executive has also donated to Democrats such as former Phoenix mayor, now U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton, and unsuccessful congressional candidate Karl Gentles. Colangelo also threw in for the ActBlue political action committee, which supports Democratic candidates. Ingram also donated to Democratic State Reps. Stanton and Kyrsten Sinema but has supported Republicans such as former U.S. Sen. Martha McSally, U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, as well as Gov. Doug Ducey’s campaign.
Ingram was a major donor to former President Donald Trump, dishing out more than $50,000 to political committees which supported Trump. As such, Ingram was accused of leveraging his influence to favor an environmental review for one of his developments nearby Benson in Cochise County which his attorney has rebuffed.
El Dorado’s CEO, Jim Kenny, serves on the board for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Larry Yount has donated to Republicans McSally and U.S. Rep. David Schweikert, and Arizona's former U.S. Senator Jeff Flake. Yount also supported Republican Steve Ferrara's bid for congress.
Political influence has been key all along, through several presidents, governors, and U.S. transportation secretaries. The bureaucratic cogs always turned in the road's favor.
Political Momentum Grows AgainIt took about five years of study before the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) approved plans for 280 miles of I-11 freeway connecting Nogales to Wickenburg in Arizona. That’s the key link since the stretch in Nevada is further along in its improvements. It's still a long way before construction in Arizona could potentially begin, and the federal government still has one more environmental review to narrow a 2,000-foot corridor into a 400-foot wide right-of-way.
Early in the process, the potential routes for I-11 “looked like a bowl of spaghetti dropped on the state”, said Scott Higginson, executive director of the Interstate 11 Coalition.
The group is comprised of civic organizations, local government leaders, and business owners in Arizona and Nevada, pushing to make the new interstate a reality.
Higginson himself has lived in both Las Vegas and Phoenix over the years and argues that if the “little ditch” known as the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River weren’t in the way, I-11 would have been built decades ago. Then the Mike O'Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, built at the site of the Hoover Dam, opened in 2010. That paved the way for I-11, he said.
“This isn’t just some let’s go build a new freeway, we have an opportunity to improve the commerce connectivity,” Higginson said.
Mexico’s Ministry of Communications and Transport allocated $2.2 billion for the Mexican Highway 15, which connects its west coast port cities to the border city of Nogales, Arizona.
“We’re going to have a firehose (of traffic) coming into our southern boundary with Mexico which is our largest trading partner in the state,” Higginson said. “Growth is coming and you’re going to need these new roads to move people around."
That was echoed by political leaders, such as Sinema, the Arizona Democrat who worked on the bipartisan legislation that congress passed in recent weeks.
"The construction of I-11 is really important as a corridor for trade," Sinema said. "That's very important to the economic future of Arizona."
There was also significant funding for rail in the bill so it was a multi-faceted approach, she said. Rallying for political support of the new interstate reached the Joe Biden Administration.
"I've been hearing a lot about I-11 through (Arizona's) congressional delegation," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg at a recent appearance in Phoenix. "They don't let a chance go by without reminding me of its importance."
Amid a push for more local public transportation options, such as light rail train and a retrofitted master plan for Amtrak routes nationwide, there's still room for next-generation roads, Buttigieg said.
"And it is (important) if you look at the proposed route it's one of the most populous areas of America not already connected by an interstate highway," he said. "We are very focused on alternatives, of course, to driving. We want to make sure this is a country where you don't have to bring two tons of metal with you everywhere you go."
But he said, there would always be a place for major roads and there's funding available for not just construction, but the study of roads to incorporate new technology.
"That's why we're investing over $100 billion in the roads and highways for the future as part of this bill," he said. "We have more funding available both in terms of the formula funds and grants that can be used among other things for making sure that the road designs of the future are not the same as they were in the 1950s."
While the federal infrastructure bill did not name I-11 as a priority corridor, there could be funding for the next phase of environmental study in the bill. The Arizona Department of Transportation would have to apply to the federal government for that funding, under the National Infrastructure Project Assistance Program.
“It’s a provision that opens up funding for federal projects to have their environmental studies done with federal funds,” said Higginson of the Interstate 11 Coalition. “In the past, those dollars had to be local and state dollars.”
The next round of environmental review is expected to be in segments then early construction is funding is identified will likely be four-lane divided highways to which interchanges are added over the years. While there is a legal framework for I-11 to become a toll road, it’s not likely due to a lack of public support. It's also unclear whether there would be enough traffic along the road to support itself through tolls.
“We’re optimistic that it's going to be built, especially for a state growing as fast as Arizona,” he said.
Environmental ConcernsBut critics of a new freeway question whether metro Phoenix needs more development. Environmentalists worry about a new road through hundreds of miles of unspoiled desert, endangering wild animals and contributing to more pollution.
“They’ve been trying to sell it to people that it could include all these other things but when it gets down to it it’s a road,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of Sierra Club in Arizona. “Freeways like this help further drive urban sprawl. They talk about it being needed to move freight but we know that it is used to facilitate more development.”
New roads shrink the roaming territory for wild animals from desert tortoises to other creatures, especially when there’s a climate crisis at hand, she said.
“For decades we’ve been talking about seriously looking at the rail in Arizona and yet for some reason, there never seems to be the money, and now we’re talking about spending massive amounts of money on another freeway,” she said.
There are two potential routes near Tucson, both of which are contentious for tribal groups who are concerned about cultural resources along the path and for environmentalists who worry about the destruction of views from natural parks nearby.
A non-profit advocacy organization the United States Public Interest Research Group Education Fund called I-11 and more than $2.5 billion for the project to expand U.S. 93 between Phoenix and Las Vegas a "boondoggle."
"Barely any of the existing 200-mile road has any congestion at present and that even under conditions of rapid traffic growth that will not change substantially," said Phineas Baxandall, at U.S. PIRG Education Fund. "The justification for the project in the middle of the desert is based largely on expectations for worsening traffic in Los Angeles. Project proponents argue that I-11 will reduce congestion in this broader region by siphoning off interstate traffic that had once passed through southern California and directing it to the Phoenix-Las Vegas corridor instead."
More than 12,000 comments were submitted during the most recent environmental review process. The vast majority opposed the freeway.
Meanwhile, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Pima County is pushing against the potential path of the corridor, which could threaten the homes of its fellow tribal members and ceremonial sites. The tribe requested that the federal government sit down and consult with its leaders. Yaquis are not against the new freeway but are concerned about the ultimate route.
“Many of our tribal members live within these historic and traditional Pascua Qaqui communities and both communities have culturally significant churches and ceremonial grounds that could be adversely impacted if the East Option is selected by FHWA and ADOT,” wrote Peter Yucupicio, chairman of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, in an August letter.
Old Pascua, otherwise known as Pascua Village, and Barrio Libre lay within the 2,000-foot wide corridor in Pima County. In Pascua Village, Yaquis held ceremonies there. About 500 residences are in the area and 118 homes are inside the proposed corridor. The plaza would be about 670 feet away from the proposed freeway corridor.
“Sites that continue to play a fundamental role in the traditional and religious practices and lifeways of the Yaqui people,” Yucupicio said.
The Colorado River Indian Tribes lamented that either the East or West route for a future I-11 would likely destroy hundreds of cultural resources important to those communities.
The tribe claimed that federal and state agencies wait too long before engaging with tribal members, "by the time the agencies get around to consulting with tribes...major decisions will already have been made thereby preventing ADOT and FHWA from truly incorporating tribal input," said Amelia Flores, chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes in an August letter.
The biggest unanswered question is where the money will come from to build the freeway, the first of its kind in the United States in a generation.
“If and until there is available funding to build this big piece of infrastructure, we’ll be waiting unfortunately for its construction,” said Audra Koester Thomas, transportation planning program manager for the Maricopa Association of Governments. “Commitment to high-capacity infrastructure like this takes decades in the making. The biggest barrier here is the need to continue to fund.”
As it stands, there are more road projects being studied than available funding to build them.
It’s “far too early” to consider the right-of-way path and potential homes which may be along the route, Thomas said.
"It's going to move those trucks that would normally have to come through downtown Phoenix to get to Las Vegas or south to Tucson, it takes that traffic out of the metropolitan area."
The Arizona State Transportation Board approved $15 million for the five-year study and is expected to make a bid for the federal grant money to move the project forward.
The Arizona Department of Transportation declined an interview request for this story citing scheduling conflicts.
"This proposed statewide highway would improve Arizona’s access to regional and international markets while opening up new opportunities for enhanced travel, mobility, trade, commerce, job growth, and economic competitiveness," said ADOT Director John Halikowski in a statement.