(April 12) NOGALES, Ariz. — Chuck Thomas now knows what it takes to get a major highway improvement project completed — “Be like a pit bull and don’t let go.”

It was about a dozen years ago that Thomas, along with other “residents” of the Rio Rico Industrial Park, realized that the traffic situation in and around the facility needed some work.

The park, just north of Nogales, is home to dozens of produce distributors and was almost impossible to get into and out of during peak season. Traffic on the frontage road that runs the length of the park resembled that of a congested metropolitan freeway during rush hour.

Shippers told stories about being stuck in the park for hours a couple of times a year when a big rig would tip over, blocking the only way in and out. They feared that if a chemical spill from a train running behind the park happened during such an incident, they could be trapped and dared not imagine the consequences.

Last season, after an 18-month construction period, the area appeared transformed. There are traffic signals controlling movement at the south end, a turn lane down the middle of the frontage road and, at long last, an exit at the north end.

Those who work there expressed relief.

“I can’t imagine us having to get through another season like it used to be,” said Jerry Wagner, sales manager at Farmers Best International LLC.

The road is much improved, agreed Jerry Havel, partner and director of marketing at SunFed.

“It’s much safer, and the flow seems much better,” he said.

But the improvements were long in coming, and Thomas, owner and president of Thomas Produce Co., said dealing with the myriad government agencies and others to make them happen was a learning experience.

Thomas was a key mover of the project and, over the years, developed relationships with congressmen and other government officials from Santa Cruz County to Washington, D.C., as well as construction company representatives and others.

One of the biggest lessons Thomas learned is that money makes all the difference. Until a means of funding turns up, “You’re way back in the line — somewhere in the 10- or 20-year plan,” he said.

Fortunately, the project found a friend in Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz.

“He helped a lot in getting some of the funding from the federal government,” Thomas said. “Once they see you have some plans out there that someone is willing to fund, they take you seriously.”

Thomas moderated meetings among all the groups — homeowners, school officials, merchants, the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas — at the offices of the county board of supervisors while government officials sat in.

The work was funded about six years ago, architectural plans were drawn up and Thomas started working with engineers, department of transportation officials and federal government representatives.

The construction company played host to monthly meetings to keep the public updated and worked with produce distributors in setting up work schedules.

“I really liked the way that happened,” Thomas said.

It was Pastor who compared Thomas to a pit bull in terms of moving the project forward.

“One person with this pit-bullish style can really make a change,” Thomas learned.