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The dust bowl

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Posted: Tuesday, January 5, 2010 12:00 am

The hellish Dec. 22 pileup on Interstate 10 near Casa Grande involved nine tractor-trailer rigs, 13 automobiles, killed three and injured 14. Add this to the hidden budget of Arizona – it’s not the one Jan (Brewer)and the Kooks are relentlessly cutting or that the nut-baggers obsess about being a sign of “SOCIALISM.”

Severe dust storms are a part of the eco-system of the Gila River valley and basin. They’ve been made more severe by generations of pumping out ground water in Pinal and northern Pima counties, killing off many desert plants that might otherwise retard the dust. None of this is new. When Interstate 10 was built in the 1970s, federal and state transportation planners failed to account for it. At one point, lighted signs were erected to warn of windstorms. But no provision was made for drivers to be able to safely pull off the road. Remarkably, no rest area exists between Casa Grande and Marana – the danger zone – that could allow cars and trucks to find safety.

This didn’t matter as much in the 1970s, when the two-lanes-each-way rural interstate was planned for a state with less than 2 million people. It was lightly traveled. Even so, it was built with the usual lack of foresight (unless there’s a quick profit for politically connected developers). Two lanes? The interstate between Dayton and Cincinnati was built with three each way, and this was serving comparable metro areas as Phoenix and Tucson in the 1970s. But not in Arizona.

More remarkable still, the rural I-10 remains largely in place, even though it now funnels traffic between one large metro area and one of the most populous in the nation (state population tripled). The highway has seen development added along the way, especially the horrid sprawl outside Casa Grande. Driving to Tucson now much of the time is torture, stuck in congestion all the way – with Arizona’s road warriors doing 85 (and these are the responsible drivers).

All this time, as the Real Estate Industrial Complex profited hugely from “growth,” the same rural interstate remained, with minimal improvements, especially for safety (the same is true between Phoenix and Flagstaff). Meanwhile, the highly touted “Sun Corridor” of Phoenix and Tucson (or does it go all the way to Prescott?) is by far the largest metroplex in the nation without a passenger rail connection to relieve some of the congestion. Even Albuquerque has commuter rail. Even conservative Dallas-Fort Worth and Nashville have it. When I was a kid, three trains a day each way went between Phoenix and Tucson; now, none.

Well, you got your tax cut.

If sometimes people die needlessly, so be it. As the media obsess or ignore the budget cutting down at the state Capitol, nobody discusses the hidden budget. It contains all the unpaid public costs of huge population growth, unplanned development, leapfrog and wildcat subdivisions, as well as the attendant environmental and social costs, and the opportunity costs of the failure to build a high-quality economy. It’s a huge budget, growing ever larger with the compound interest of neglect, toxic ideology and kicking the can into the next generation. Profits were privatized. Costs continue to the socialized. There’s your socialism, Arizona-style – and it has a body count.


Jon Talton is a journalist and author living in Seattle. He writes the “On the Economy” column for the Seattle Times and is editor and publisher of the blog “Rogue Columnist” (

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