It’s easy to crack jokes about the barren landscape on trips to Tucson on Interstate 10, but the drive time of the future is no laughing matter.

The roughly 90-minute trip is expected to last an excruciating 5 1/2 hours in 2050 — even with the freeway being widened to 10 lanes.

The projected congestion has triggered the Arizona Department of Transportation to look at other ways of reaching Tucson from the Valley, such as by rail. ADOT is kicking off public hearings this week to get feedback on options that all include routes through the East Valley.

The plan will lay out how to move people at a time when the Valley and Tucson merge into a massive metropolitan area called the Sun Corridor. The region’s population will more than double by 2050.

“I-10 isn’t going to be able to sustain that traffic, so that’s why we’ve launched this study to look at the options that are out there,” ADOT spokesman Tim Tait said.

Rail lines have been studied for a couple decades but this effort will result in the most comprehensive overview, Tait said.

The previous efforts produced eight potential corridors. Generally, they start in downtown Phoenix and reach Tucson while going through the East Valley in one of three ways, including routes on:

• Existing rail lines that run through Tempe and Chandler.

• The existing rail line through Gilbert and Queen Creek.

• Main Street in Mesa to Apache Junction, then turning south.

In between the Valley and Tucson, the routes go as far west at Maricopa and as far east as Florence. The track would span about 140 miles.

ADOT is holding four meetings each in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties to get public input. The agency hopes to hear from thousands of people as it formulates a plan, Tait said.

The $6 million study is mostly funded by the federal government and will take until 2013 to complete.

ADOT’s study needs extensive public input to ensure the track is built where it will serve the largest number of riders, said Serena Unrein, public interest advocate with the Arizona Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.

The projected five-hour trip between the metro areas should make it clear how much Arizona needs to expand its transportation systems, she said.

“When I heard that, I was astounded,” Unrein said. “I have to travel to Tucson once a month and the thought of having to spend 10 hours in my car to make that trip is pretty horrifying.”

ADOT expects Arizona’s population will more than double in the next 40 years and that the Sun Corridor will become one of the most expansive urban areas in the U.S. Maricopa County is projected to jump from about 4 million in 2009 to about 7.6 million by 2050. Pinal County’s 1 million people will nearly double and Pinal County will jump from 356,000 to 2.1 million.

The study will also tie into other ADOT studies and consider tying into light rail and a potential commuter rail line within the Valley.

“We have to look at this as a system and not as a standalone product,” Tait said. “We need to look at the points at the end of the line so we’re not just dropping passengers off with nowhere to go.”

ADOT will also study how many stations to place along the line, whether high-speed trains are feasible and whether any existing Union Pacific track can be shared. A train would likely cost at least $2 billion to construct at an estimated $15 million per mile to buy land and build tracks. That doesn’t include the trains or operating expenses.

ADOT will also examine a bus route or not building anything. Some major issues will remain even after the study, including how to fund construction and operation and when it might be built.

“That’s so far into the future that we’re really not talking about that yet,” Tait said.

Open houses to study rail or other commuting options from the Valley to Tucson

When and where:

• 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday at Arizona State University Campus Mall, 1151 S. Forest Ave.

• 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Chandler Downtown Library, 22 S. Delaware St.

• 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., Nov. 1 at the Mesa Main Library, 64 E. First St.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6548 or

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