The University of Arizona

Not Your Typical 'Flat and Black' Freeway

By Amanda Ballard, University Relations - Communications | July 7, 2014

Students in the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture are developing recommendations for a proposed interstate that would stretch from Nogales to Las Vegas.

UA students' designs for the proposed I-11 feature sustainable elements, like water harvesting devices and solar panels.
UA students' designs for the proposed I-11 feature sustainable elements, like water harvesting devices and solar panels.

Arizona could see a new interstate in the future. And if recommendations being developed by students at the University of Arizona are successful, the highway won't be anything like the 1950s versions that crisscross the country.

Linda Samuels, assistant professor at the UA College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture and director of UA Sustainable City Project, calls them the "flat and black" model of freeway design – miles of homogeneous asphalt with dotted white lines as far as the eye can see, topped with cars transporting commuters, semi trucks moving freight and the occasional road tripper.

She's working with students to ensure that a new interstate proposed for Arizona would be much more than another standard freeway.

The final Interstate 11 route has not been determined, but it is intended to be part of the Canamex international trade corridor – a chain of interstates linking Mexico with Canada. Parts of Interstate 10 and Interstate 19 are already designated segments of the Canamex Corridor.

Congress defined the Canamex in the 1995 National Highway Systems Designation Act. The Canamex project is a joint effort involving Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Utah and Montana to develop a continuous multi-lane freeway from Mexico through the U.S. to Canada, facilitating trade between the countries and minimizing traffic congestion.

As part of a research studio taught by Samuels, CAPLA visiting assistant professor Arlie Adkins and CAPLA associate professor Mark Frederickson, undergraduate and graduate students from the UA conducted research to create design proposals along what emerged as the most promising I-11 route between Nogales, Arizona, and Las Vegas. Students at Arizona State University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, participated in simultaneous studios, focusing on points of interest near their cities. The project was supported by the UA's Renewable Energy Network and ASU's Rob and Melani Walton Sustainable Solutions Initiative.

Samuels said the students' objective was to make their designs as environmentally, socially and economically sustainable as possible. Their plans treat I-11 as a "super corridor" with features like renewable energy generation, increased transit options and water harvesting.

For example, students who designed the Casa Grande portion of the corridor included an onsite water collection and recycling system which would recharge hundreds of fallow farming acres as a public wetlands for recreational use, water purification and restored animal habitats. Students who focused on the intersection of I-11 in central Tucson utilized mechanisms to harness solar, wind and kinetic energy in their design. Solar panel designs by the students who focused on the Sahuarita area not only generate energy for the city, but provide cooling shade structures for pedestrians.

"What we don't want it to be is the last piece of the 1950s interstate system," Samuels said. "What we do want it to be is the first piece of next-generation infrastructure."

Architecture undergraduate Bernardo Terán said the project was a rare opportunity to work at not just an urban scale, but a statewide scale.

"The I-11 supercorridor project was an interesting and unique project that exposed me to the many issues and potential benefits associated with infrastructure projects of this scope," he said. "The conversations, research and subsequent studio projects proposing very specific and contrasting design prototypes on the future I-11 were amazing and demonstrated how these could benefit the sites in multiple ways and how much everyone as a studio accomplished."

The next steps for the students are to consolidate their findings and focus on answering research questions that could be useful to agencies, such as the Arizona Department of Transportation. The students' research and projects can be viewed on the studio's website.

"The value of (the UA) being involved is to increase the social, environmental and economic outcomes toward a positive and productive direction, rather than only thinking about the movement of goods and people through cars and trucks," Samuels said. "We hope to encourage such massive investments – from $17 to $70 million per lane per mile – to be leveraged for broad improvements to the public realm."

Currently, the Arizona and Nevada transportation departments are working on a joint study to examine the environmental and economic impacts of I-11. The departments are also hosting public meetings to gather feedback from the communities that would be impacted.

"One thing I will say from my own research ... is we always underestimate the timeline for large scale infrastructure," Samuels said. "We're eager to imagine these things are happening now, but  they are multigenerational projects for the most part. We might be planning for five more years and building for 15 years after that."

CAPLA's dean, Jan Cervelli, serves as board chair of Arizona Forward, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving Arizona communities. Cervelli recently led a group of Arizona business and civic leaders who meet with the Arizona congressional delegation and other key members of Congress in Washington, D.C., to discuss the I-11 project.

"This investment would be significant, no doubt about it," she said. "But the payback would be significant, as well, in a key part of the country."

According to Cervelli, there is a recent trend of moving manufacturing operations from Asia to Latin America. She said this trend, known as nearshoring, could be augmented by enhancing the trade relationship between the U.S. and Mexico via I-11, benefiting both countries and rural cities along the route.

She added that the UA could serve as a valuable resource for I-11 planners.

"This would be a multistate project that would help serve the nation's needs in terms of maintaining global economic competitiveness," Cervelli said. "There are so many different places where the University can bring its expertise to help both in the economic development planning of this project and ... also in the design, planning and engineering of this corridor."