Buttigieg touts bridge across Rio Salado, millions in federal infrastructure spending

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Three mayors, whether current or past, discussed the importance of bridge building in Phoenix on Thursday.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was in Phoenix to promote $75.3 million allocated by the Biden administration to support four major construction projects in Arizona.

In Phoenix, the Biden administration is awarding $25 million toward the construction of a pedestrian and bicycle bridge across the Rio Salado River. Once completed, the Third Street Bicycle and Pedestrian Project will connect south Phoenix residents to the city's downtown area.

It's a project local and federal officials hope will spur greater interconnectivity and inclusivity between underserved communities in south Phoenix, where Latino and Black residents make up the majority of the population, and the city's economic center.

“It really brings together a number of important objectives at the same time,” Buttigieg told The Arizona Republic. “Safety, sustainability, equity and economic principles. It's especially important for this part of south Phoenix, where a lot of neighborhoods have been cut off not just by the river itself, but by the railway. And where so many residents do not have a car.”

One-fifth of households in south Phoenix do not have a car. This new pedestrian bridge, along with the current construction of a South Central extension of the light rail line, will revolutionize the commute and help connect their area to downtown.

The Federal RAISE Program allotted $2.2 billion in funding this year for 166 local projects that included bridge building in Phoenix and Tucson and the curation of an electric and battery-powered ferry in Washington state.

Many local groups applied for funding. The more than 900 applications would have totaled $13 billion in federal spending if each had been greenlighted.

Choosing which of the applications would receive federal funds was the job of Buttigieg and his team at the U.S. DOT.

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“Obviously, we were only able to fund a fraction of the requests that came in. So there was a very rigorous process where staff went through applications in tremendous detail,” Buttigieg said.

"Many of the projects that did well had elements that would benefit safety, economic growth, sustainability and equity, as suggested by the name of the program. And at the same time, I'd say there's no magic formula.”

In May, Democratic U.S. Reps. Ruben Gallego and Greg Stanton wrote to  Buttigieg and the Transportation Department, highlighting the benefits bridge construction in south Phoenix could have on the area, which has a high pedestrian fatality rate.

For Gallego, the grant was an example of Phoenix standing out as a priority for federal investment. Often, he said, that hasn't been the case.

“When we sent a letter to Secretary Buttigieg in May asking to fund the Rio Reimagined Bridge, we knew of the enormous benefit it would bring to south Phoenix,” Gallego said. “This a huge win for Phoenix’s infrastructure, pedestrian safety, and shows what’s possible when levels of government are focused on solving important problems.”

Buttigieg was joined at the news conference by Stanton and Gallego, as well as by Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego.

Stanton has made development along the Rio Salado a priority since his time as Phoenix mayor and recalled conversations with the late U.S. Sen. John McCain on the topic. He drew a straight line between the new bridge and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act signed into law by President Joe Biden last year.

Without federal help, the development would not exist, he said.

“It's an easy answer. The answer is no,” Stanton said. “Just like light rail, which is under construction here right now, that is only done in full partnership between local dollars, plus federal dollars. Same thing with any investment that we've seen here in the Rio Salado."

Mayor Kate Gallego speaks during a press conference to announce infrastructure investments in Arizona at the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, in Phoenix. The projects are funding as a result of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed last November.
Mayor Kate Gallego speaks during a press conference to announce infrastructure investments in Arizona at the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, in Phoenix. The projects are funding as a result of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed last November.

Once Mayor Kate Gallego, who was close friends with Buttigieg when the two were in college at Harvard University, identified the bridge as her top infrastructure priority, she got to work building and defending a proposal that had input from Arizona's Democrats in Congress and other federal officials.

“I met twice with the Department of Transportation leadership, and in the second round they really asked a lot of very detailed questions about the program, who it would help,” Gallego told The Republic.

“They were very interested in our commitment to making sure the local community benefits from the infrastructure. They pushed us pretty hard on making sure it benefited as many people as possible.”

The other major infrastructure projects in the state are:

  • $261,000 for a planning project to fund Navajo County’s regional study to improve pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure on the 16-mile segment of State Route 260 between U.S. 60 and State Route 73 and the surrounding neighborhoods. The project will identify areas for improvement, determine adequate safety measures and prepare pre-construction documents.

  • $25 million to Tucson to improve approximately 0.85 of a mile of 22nd Street from Kino Parkway to Tucson Boulevard. The project replaces an existing 1960s-era bridge in poor condition with a new bridge over the Union Pacific Railroad and State Route 210, expands 22nd Street from four lanes to six lanes with a divided median, and constructs a separate bicycle and pedestrian bridge. The project provides an east-west connection between downtown Tucson and an underserved community. Broadband conduit will also be installed as part of the project.

  • $25 million to Colorado Indian River Tribes to reconstruct Mohave Road from State Route 95 south to Agnes Wilson Road for a length of approximately 10.50 miles, including asphalt pavement and shoulders, intersection turn lane improvements, streetlighting, and signage. This project has important connections to State Route 95, Interstate 10, and U.S. 95.

Gregory Svirnovskiy is a Pulliam Fellow at The Arizona Republic. You can follow him on Twitter @gsvirnovskiy or reach him by email at gregory.svirnovskiy@gannett.com

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Buttigieg, in AZ, touts bridge across Rio Salado, infrastructure spending