Flashback Friday: Dual underpasses helped turn Benson into a 'highway city'

Flashback Friday: Dual underpasses helped turn Benson into a 'highway city'


Flashback Friday: Dual underpasses helped turn Benson into a 'highway city'

Flashback Friday: Dual underpasses helped turn Benson into a 'highway city'

By Steve Elliott / ADOT Communications
January 3, 2020

In spring 1941, the front page of the San Pedro Valley News noted a major Arizona Highway Department project getting underway in the southeastern Arizona community of Benson.

As part of an interchange for what was then State Route 86 (now Business 10/East Fourth Street) and Benson-Douglas Highway (then US 80, now State Route 80), two underpasses on the east side of town would carry State Route 86 under westbound US 80 traffic and the railroad tracks.

"Of interest to Benson people will be the fact that the barrels of the underpass will have the wording 'Benson 1941' on the face of the structure in 14" bronze letters," the article said.

Not long after, much of the paper's front page was devoted to a map showing the layout of the interchange and an article explaining that the underpasses, "of ultra-modern design" and "the latest type of traffic separation," were on track to open in September of that year. 

"This is the first structure in Arizona to combine both traffic separation on highway as well as railroad," it said.

Those large bronze letters remain on the railroad underpass, as do the scored parallel lines and simple designs that give both structures an Art Moderne theme. More importantly, after nearly 80 years these underpasses continue to provide value and safety for those living in, visiting and traveling through Benson. For the record, much of SR 86 east of Tucson was later replaced by Interstate 10. 

The Benson Visitor Center's credits the underpasses with helping give rise to Benson as a "highway city."

"Weary travelers used the town's service stations, motels and restaurants," it says. "Benson became a modern oasis, especially when intense heat made driving arduous."

The map at right allows you to explore this interchange as it is today, and the photo below from the Benson Visitor Center shows the interchange when it opened. If you're as into this subject as I am, here are Google Street View links to travel through the underpasses heading west and east.

According to ADOT's Arizona Historic Bridge Inventory, the Benson underpasses were part of an extensive program during the Great Depression to separate automobile traffic and trains. Similar improvements included the Stone Avenue Underpass in Tucson, the Winslow Underpass on SR 87 and the Casa Grande Underpass on SR 84. Like the others, Benson's featured a distinctive architectural treatment – in this case, simpler and modern for the times. 

"The Benson Underpass is one of a handful of such structures to trade on the Art Moderne style," ADOT's report says, citing the 17th Avenue Underpass near the State Capitol in Phoenix among the other examples. 

I like to look for old newspaper articles celebrating the completion of such impactful projects. But events leading up to the United States' entry into World War II began to understandably take over the San Pedro Valley News' attention as 1941 went on. If there was a major celebration when these structures opened, and I sure hope there was, I wasn't able to find an article about it during a recent visit to the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records

Independence for Maricopa drivers

Independence for Maricopa drivers


Independence for Maricopa drivers

Independence for Maricopa drivers

By Tom Herrmann / ADOT Communications
July 22, 2019

Drivers in Maricopa have something to celebrate: independence from sitting on State Route 347 waiting for trains to pass.

Last week, crews removed the barricades and welcomed the first vehicles on to a new overpass carrying drivers over Maricopa-Casa Grande Highway and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.

Trains are important to Arizona’s economy. They move many goods around our state efficiently. The good people of Maricopa won’t dispute that.

ADOT and Maricopa worked long and hard for the overpass and independence from trains that cross SR 347 more than 60 times every day. A $15 million federal TIGER grant is helping pay for the $55 million project, as is a $14 million investment by Maricopa.

Even with traffic flowing on the new alignment of SR 347, we still have work to do. The original alignment of SR 347 will be changed to mesh with the new road. Cul-de-sacs will prevent vehicles from reaching the railroad tracks. Honeycutt Avenue will be extended to connect with the new alignment.

This project improving safety and mobility in a fast-growing community remains on track to wrap up by late this year.


Arizona awarded $15 million federal grant toward Maricopa overpass

Arizona awarded $15 million federal grant toward Maricopa overpass

I-17 101 traffic interchange

Arizona awarded $15 million federal grant toward Maricopa overpass

Arizona awarded $15 million federal grant toward Maricopa overpass

October 29, 2015

PHOENIX ‒ The Arizona Department of Transportation has been selected to receive a $15 million federal grant toward the construction of a railroad overpass on State Route 347, the only direct route between the city of Maricopa and metro Phoenix.

The Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant announced Thursday by the U.S. Department of Transportation is for a $55 million project intended to enhance safety and alleviate traffic backups at the SR 347 Union Pacific Railroad crossing in Maricopa.

Instead of waiting for trains to pass, motorists on SR 347 will be able to travel on an overpass above the tracks when ADOT completes the grade-separated interchange, which is slated for construction in fiscal year 2020. The new interchange also will offer better access for emergency responders.

ADOT and Maricopa officials have been working together for some time on a long-term solution for this crossing. After completing a feasibility study in 2007, ADOT partnered with the city of Maricopa to fund a design concept report and environmental analysis that began in 2012 and ultimately identified a preferred alternative.

“The reconstruction of the SR 347 interchange will enhance safety and address traffic congestion at the railroad crossing by allowing motorists, including emergency service vehicles, to pass over the tracks,” ADOT Director John Halikowski said. “Maricopa has experienced explosive growth over the last decade and traffic volumes along this critical route will continue to climb, which is why this project has become a high priority for ADOT, Maricopa and regional transportation officials.”

More than 60 trains run daily through Maricopa – one of the fastest-growing communities in the nation – and that number is expected to grow.

“While this project has been a team effort, it would have been impossible without the ongoing support of Chairman Kelly Anderson and all the current and past members of the State Transportation Board,” Maricopa Mayor Christian Price said.

“I would also like to thank ADOT staff for their tireless work. They recognized the public safety importance and found the money in their budget, during one of the worst economic downturns, to keep this project moving forward.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation received 627 eligible applications totaling $10.1 billion, or 20 times the available funding, in requests for the seventh round of TIGER grants, which are awarded to transportation projects with significant regional or national impact. Approximately $500 million in funding was available.

Other Arizona projects that have received TIGER grants are:

  • 2010: $63 million for a modern street car project in Tucson.
  • 2012: $21.6 million for the rehabilitation of Interstate 15 Virgin River Bridge No. 6 in the far northwest corner of the state.
  • 2014: $2.9 million for the Tawa’ovi Community Streets project for the Hopi tribal community in northeastern part of the state.
  • 2014: $1.6 million for Central Phoenix Multimodal Transportation Improvement Plan.
  • 2015: $10.3 million for city of Phoenix Grand Canal bike and pedestrian improvements.

ADOT serves as safety oversight for rail transit

ADOT serves as safety oversight for rail transit


ADOT serves as safety oversight for rail transit

ADOT serves as safety oversight for rail transit

August 2, 2011

Firefighters and other emergency crews participated in a mock emergency near Tempe Town Lake. The drill was conducted by METRO.

There’s so much to be said for rail transit – the future of this efficient mode of transportation is pretty exciting.

In Arizona steps are being taken toward that future with the operation of METRO Light Rail and the anticipated launch of Tucson ’s modern streetcar project.

While ADOT is not responsible for rail transit in the state, the agency does play an important role …

Back in the early 1990s, work began on a federal level to establish a method of ensuring the safety and security of rail transit. That led to the Federal Transit Administration’s creation of the State Safety Oversight Rule in 1995. It sets forth requirements to improve rail transit safety and security and gives the states the authority to take on oversight.

That’s where ADOT comes in.

ADOT’s Herman Bernal is the state safety oversight manager for transit (that doesn’t include buses, by the way). He works with METRO Light Rail to make sure the ride is safe and secure for all passengers.

His duties are spelled out by the federal rule, and include:

  • Developing a system safety program standard
  • Reviewing, approving and monitoring the implementation of that plan
  • Requiring each rail transit system to report the occurrence of accidents and unacceptable hazardous conditions
  • Conducting onsite visits
  • Requiring the rail transit system to conduct safety audits

His job also includes lots of training, workshops and conferences, which help make him aware of the potential safety and security threats faced by rail transit. The FTA conducts training for him and his counterparts twice a year.


Participants acted injured and confused so emergency crews could practice what it would be like to evacuate a METRO Light Rail car.

There have been two recent training scenarios that METRO has conducted and Bernal was on hand for. One scenario was conducted near on the Tempe Town Lake bridge and let local emergency responders practice how they would react if a METRO Light Rail passenger car was on fire and needed to be evacuated (see photos in this post).

Volunteers acted as passengers who were injured and confused. Bernal said there were many different scenarios thrown at the responders – including crowd control and the possibility of live electricity in the cars.

An earlier training exercise focused on what to do in case of a derailment.

“We had three shifts of firefighters going through the mock derailment,” said Bernal, adding 911 dispatchers, ambulance companies and police from Mesa, Tempe, Scottsdale and Phoenix were involved, too.

Jay Harper, METRO’s chief of safety and security, says the scenarios are beneficial and two are required each year.

“It’s a very collaborative relationship I think,” Harper said of ADOT’s safety oversight role. “We both understand what we need to do and we understand how important it is that we do it correctly.”

Bernal agrees and says METRO has done a phenomenal job and that the growing system is important to Arizona ’s future.

“In 10 to 20 years our population could double,” he said. “If we don’t look at light rail and street cars, we’re going to miss the boat."