By David Pittman –
Though the Aerospace Parkway on Tucson’s far southside will be only 4½ miles long when completed, high-ranking city, county, state and federal political and government officials all rejoiced at its recent groundbreaking.
That’s because the parkway is viewed by those leaders as simply the opening salvo in a transformational economic development vision they hope will bring increased aerospace, defense and manufacturing operations to the area and build upon existing transportation and logistics advantages to make Tucson a regional hub for national and international trade.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, Congresswoman Martha McSally, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and Pima County Supervisors Sharon Bronson, Ramón Valadez and Ray Carroll all praised the parkway as the beginning of what could become a wave of high-tech manufacturing development on the city’s south side.
“Today is a great day for Tucson and a great day for economic development in Southern Arizona,” said Ducey at the March 31 groundbreaking ceremony.
“This is the beginning of the road to Pima County’s economic recovery,” said Bronson, who chairs the Board of Supervisors.
Construction of the parkway is on a fast track and is expected to be open to traffic in December. Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said that ambitious schedule will be met “because this is a new road and there is not a car on it. You just have to connect the two ends. The contractor is in heaven.”
That contractor is The Ashton Company. The county has already committed $6.6 million provided by the Regional Transportation Authority to the project. The parkway will initially be two lanes, but will eventually be upgraded to four.
The parkway was first proposed by Huckelberry to replace Hughes Access Road to create a larger buffer area surrounding Raytheon Missile Systems’ airport campus. In 2010, Raytheon chose to build a new manufacturing facility in Huntsville, Ala., rather than in Tucson in part because of the lack of adequate buffer space here.
Raytheon is Southern Arizona’s largest private employer.
The realignment provided by the parkway also creates room for construction of a second runway at Tucson International Airport, enables expansion for the Air National Guard’s 162nd Fighter Wing at TIA, and provides the ability to begin planning and installing needed infrastructure improvements (such as electricity, gas, water and fiber-optic cable access) for a future Aerospace, Defense and Technology Research and Business Park along the new parkway.
“We have reached the point where we want to grow even further,” said Taylor W. Lawrence, president of Raytheon Missile Systems, at the parkway’s groundbreaking. “That is about having the right infrastructure and the right connectivity.”
Lawrence said Raytheon “is proud to be a part of Tucson and Southern Arizona” and is very pleased with efforts to make future Raytheon expansion in Tucson possible.
McCain, a former Navy pilot and Vietnam POW who serves as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and McSally, a former Air Force colonel who was the first woman in U.S. history to fly in combat and the first to command a fighter squadron, each emphasized the critical importance of Raytheon to both the national defense and the Arizona economy.
“Raytheon is wonderful for Southern Arizona and for America,” McCain said.
“I know firsthand the advantages Raytheon brings to the fight,” McSally said. “Raytheon is an integral part of the U.S. defense system and our local economy.”
However, the long-range economic development plans for the area around the airport region have grown well beyond a parkway to enable expansion at Raytheon and create a military/defense/high-tech business and research park. The parkway is also viewed as a first step in creating a transportation and trade hub dubbed the Sonoran Corridor.
The leading architect of the Sonoran Corridor plan is Huckelberry. In his remarks, Rothschild commended Huckelberry and the county Board of Supervisors, conceding the Sonoran Corridor “is really their vision.”
The corridor – which when fully completed would include a four-lane, controlled-access highway – would connect Interstate 10 at Rita Road near the UA Tech Park with Interstate 19 somewhere north of Pima Mine Road. The 16-mile highway would pass through undeveloped land south of TIA, link up with Aerospace Parkway and allow for creation of a southern entrance to TIA. In addition, the corridor runs near rail lines going both east and west and north and south.
“We have many key logistical components – surface transportation, air transportation, rail transportation and the Port of Tucson – coming together in a very contained area that is largely undeveloped,” Huckelberry said. “It is a location that splits between two large population markets, California and Texas, and is connected by rail and by I-19 to Mexico.”
Port of Tucson/Century Park Research is a full-service inland port, rail yard and intermodal facility owned by Alan Levin that is located adjacent to Union Pacific rail lines and I-10. Huckelberry said a proposal to build new track linking the Nogales rail line to the Port of Tucson by running it along the Aerospace Parkway and the northern portion of the Sonoran Corridor could increase the efficiency of freight travel from Mexico and allow traditional rail passenger service from downtown Tucson to TIA and the aerospace/defense park.
Huckelberry said Tucson’s connection to Mexico could prove very important in attracting increased U.S. aerospace and defense contractors “because there is a very high concentration of suppliers in Sonora, Mexico, making component parts and supporting systems for high-tech industrial usage in the United States.”
The first phases of the Sonoran Corridor could be funded through $30 million included in the upcoming county bond proposal, approved by the Board of Supervisors in April.
Because of the national highway and international trade implications contained in the Sonoran Corridor plan, Huckelberry said efforts will be undertaken to obtain federal money for the project. “I’ve had conversations with Senator McCain and there is a clear understanding that this has national significance,” Huckelberry said.
Huckelberry placed the entire cost of highway improvements contained in the Sonoran Corridor plan at around $600 million. He said construction of the new rail line and utility investments necessary to create the aerospace and defense research center would likely push total cost to about $1 billion.
“But that billion dollars may result in taxable values of multiple billions of dollars,” he said. “The primary objective of the county is to create jobs and increase the tax base.”
Many Southern Arizona business leaders are supportive not only of the Aerospace Parkway, but high-tech research and defense recruitment and the entire package of Sonoran Corridor infrastructure improvements.
“You can never do too much for Raytheon, your largest private employer,” said Ron Shoopman, president and CEO of Southern Arizona Leadership Council and a former Air Force brigadier general. “There is also great potential for economic growth by increasing our already highly successful aerospace and defense sector, much of which is already concentrated around the airport.”