A stretch of Interstate 10 prone to dust storms in the southern Arizona desert will get a sophisticated system of sensors and other technology to tell drivers to slow down and allow authorities to remotely monitor dangerous highway conditions.
The state Department of Transportation this week began designing the new system for 10 miles of Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson. The location between Eloy and Picacho Peak is the site of dust storms that often form suddenly, particularly during the summer monsoon.
The system will include sensors to detect dust storms, programmable signs to reduce speed limits, overhead electronic message boards to alert drivers and pole-mounted cameras to feed real-time images to ADOT staffers in Phoenix via fiber-optic cable.
"Obviously what we're looking at here is a huge increase for safety for drivers in that area," ADOT spokesman Tom Hermann said Thursday.
ADOT says the system has an estimated cost of $12.8 million and should be in full operation by late 2018 or early 2019.
Hermann said ADOT officials designing the system will look at technology being used in the Middle East and other places.
A $54 million federal grant to improve and widen I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson will pay about two-thirds of the system's cost. Arizona will pay the rest.
Hermann said installation will be coordinated with planned widening of I-10 in the area so that the new equipment won't have to be moved to accommodate additional traffic lanes.
ADOT currently doesn't have cameras in the area, so the Traffic Operations Center in Phoenix cannot view conditions affecting traffic. And there also aren't any message boards nearby to warn approaching drivers.
The system is planned for an open area where nothing blocks strong winds and where former farm fields provide fine silt that produces huge clouds of dust, sharply reducing visibility.
Motorists encountering dust storms often are driving at speeds above the freeway's 75 mph speed limit, allowing them little time to react.
Hermann said ADOT didn't have statistics for dust-related accidents where the system will be located, and a Department of Public Safety spokesman could only provide figures for 66 miles of I-10 from the Tucson area's northern outskirts to just north of Casa Grande.
In that larger area, DPS so far this year has investigated six collisions in which severe crosswinds or blowing sand or dirt were contributing factors and 3 such collisions in 2015, spokesman Quentin Mehr said.
Other agencies may have investigated additional accidents, in the area, Mehr said.
Other stretches of highways in Arizona desert areas are also prone to dust storms, but Hermann said the I-10 segment was chosen because of its storm activity and its heavy use for personal and business travel between Phoenix and Tucson.
Once the system is operational, it will be evaluated as a potential model for installation of systems elsewhere, Hermann said. "This is the first priority but that doesn't mean this is the only place that it could be used."
Other places where dust storms periodically hinder highway traffic include along I-10 near Willcox in southeastern Arizona, along I-10 near Quartzsite and Interstate 8 east of Yuma in southwestern Arizona and along Interstate 40 in northeastern Arizona.