Home / Focus / Environment June 2013 / Closing the Loop: Congestion suggests need for S. Mountain Freeway, but environmentalists say no

Closing the Loop: Congestion suggests need for S. Mountain Freeway, but environmentalists say no

Building the South Mountain Freeway would mean better traffic flow and air quality than doing nothing at all, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation.

But some, like Sandy Bahr, director of Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, are unconvinced. Some Ahwatukee residents are adamantly opposed, but recent polls of likely voters indicate support for the freeway.

“The bottom line is we don’t think the freeway is needed,” Bahr says. “It’s bad for wildlife. It’s bad for people and air quality problems. It’s bad for the park and it’s a terrible message to send to future generations.”

If approved, the eight-lane freeway would run 22-24 miles between Laveen and Chandler. The preferred route would connect Interstate 10 at 59th Avenue, passing through the southwest corner of South Mountain Park Preserve and continuing down Pecos Road to meet I-10 and the Loop 202 Santan Freeway in Chandler.

ADOT’s environmental impact study, which took 12 years and cost $20.5 million to complete, compared the implications of the proposed freeway to the impact of doing nothing. The draft environmental impact statement released in April concluded that the preferred route of South Mountain Freeway would reduce traffic congestion and result in less pollution than if nothing were done.

“It’s a simple principle that vehicles that are moving are less polluting than vehicles that are stuck in traffic,” says ADOT spokesman Tim Tait. “By constructing the South Mountain Freeway, congestion would be reduced through the Broadway curve area, which is highly congested right now.”

Transportation officials say the freeway is necessary. Between 2010 and 2035 the total vehicle miles traveled in the Maricopa County is projected to increase from 101 million to 185 million a day, the study found.

The South Mountain Freeway could carry between 137,000 and 142,000 vehicles a day by 2030, according to the statement. This could reduce traffic in the Broadway curve area of I-10 by 24,000 vehicles a day.

But to Bahr, diverting existing congestion by building another freeway isn’t a sustainable option.

“When you build more freeways, before long those freeways are congested, too,” Bahr says. “More freeways gets you more cars with more traffic, more urban sprawl and fewer alternatives. It’s a drain on resources. We don’t buy the argument that this will improve air quality.”

Long history
The South Mountain Freeway project has a long history of controversy and delays. Maricopa County voters first approved funding for the freeway in 1985 with Proposition 300. The freeway is now the last missing element of the original loop system. Voters approved funding again in 2004 with Proposition 400.

After releasing the draft environmental impact statement in April, ADOT began a public comment period running through July 24. ADOT will use the information gathered to complete a final environmental impact statement, which will be available for another public comment period, before it is sent for review and decision.

The Federal Highway Administration, ADOT and Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) expect to have a final decision by 2014.

Funding for the $1.9 billion project is already in place, including money raised from the voter-approved Maricopa County sales tax, state and federal funds.

If the freeway isn’t built, traffic volume and congestion will increase, contributing to higher levels of pollution and reduced performance of freeway transit services like buses, the study found.

“The existing system will be severely taxed in the future if South Mountain isn’t constructed, especially that movement between the southeast and southwest portions of the Valley,” Tait says. “Something has to be done. And that something we believe is a freeway.”

The draft statement examined several routes to connect with I-10 in the West Valley, but in all scenarios the freeway would pass through South Mountain Park and along Pecos Road. That is the only possible route for this part of the freeway, according to Eric Anderson, transportation director for MAG.

Construction would displace 138 homes and a church along the eastern section of the freeway, according to the draft statement. The preferred 59th Avenue route would displace an additional 680 apartments, 53 houses and 41 businesses.

The study did not consider moving the route through Gila River Reservation. Without permission from Gila River Indian Community, Pecos Road is the only possible route, according to transportation officials.

South Mountain Park Preserve

The freeway would destroy about 40 acres in the southwestern corner of South Mountain Park, cutting through three mountain ridges. The study recommended a land swap to offset the loss.

Parts of the park are considered sacred to some Arizona Native Americans.

“Cutting a chunk out of South Mountain Park is just criminal,” Bahr says. “South Mountain is rich with cultural sites and history.”

The construction could also restrict wildlife movement, according to the study. ADOT proposes that it can mitigate impacts on wildlife by constructing crossing areas.

The freeway would have no effect on threatened or endangered species, according to the draft statement, but could affect bald eagle foraging behavior along the Salt River.

Bahr says that the study missed the potential impact on the Sonoran desert tortoise, a candidate for listing as an endangered species.

“We know the species has been declining significantly. There’s nothing in this draft to mitigate the impact on the desert tortoise,” Bahr says.

Park visitors would also have to deal with the intrusion of the freeway, according to Jim Jochim, treasurer of Protecting Arizona’s Resources and Children.

“If you like to hike and like the tranquility of the mountain area, you’re not going to be happy with hiking when you see the volume of traffic on the freeway,” Jochim says.

Divided views
A poll conducted in May of 400 likely voters by the We Build Arizona Coalition, a group representing contractors and builders, found that 64 percent favored building the freeway. Another poll of 300 likely voters in Ahwatukee and Laveen showed 59 percent favored building the freeway.

“If we don’t have it, I-10 will literally be choked to death with more traffic over the next 20 years,” says Robert Johnson, campaign manager for Build the 202, a campaign sponsored by We Build Arizona. Johnson is vice president of public affairs at HighGround Public Affairs Consultants.

Construction of the freeway would create about 30,000 jobs, according to Johnson.

“Our economy needs this freeway and so does everyone who lives here and works here and tries to get around here,” he says.

Robert Clifford, who works for Quality Testing and has served as a consultant to ADOT, says he thinks the freeway is necessary.

“It’s another way to get around the South Mountain area,” he says. “It will be helpful.”

The freeway would benefit truck traffic more than local residents, says Jim Szabo of Ahwatukee.

“It will be very close to our homes,” Szabo says. “The only advantages are to the trucking traffic that will come from Mexico and the Tucson area.”

After living in Los Angeles for 19 years, Ahwatukee Foothills resident Patricia Gearhart says she knows what car pollution does to a community.

“This is heaven out here now,” Gearhart says, adding that the freeway “is going to really change the quality of air in the Foothills.”

Larry Dorenzo of Ahwatukee says he opposes constructing the freeway because of what it will mean for his community and the environment.

“I’m concerned about the impact it’s going to have on pollution and the impact it’s going to have on the animals,” Dorenzo says. “I chose where I live now because there’s some seclusion and I like the nature.”

Daniel Mills, a volunteer with Protecting Arizona’s Resources and Children, grew up in Ahwatukee near the foot of the mountains. He says he has heard about the freeway for as long as he can remember.

“I think it would absolutely horrendous to blast through the mountain,” Mills says. “I grew up in that mountain. I literally went hiking every single day in South Mountain along where they are going to blast those ridges. That is a huge concern to me.”

Mills says the draft failed to address some of factors that could worsen pollution levels that are already above EPA standards, like the impact of diesel trucks from Mexico and those carrying hazardous materials.

“We think as long as we are creating infrastructure and we’re building freeways, then we must be headed in the right direction, but it’s catching up very fast and it comes at a very high cost to the environment and to our quality of life,” Mills says.

Tait, the ADOT spokesman, says steps including noise walls, rubberized asphalt, wildlife crossings and maintaining access to cultural sites could reduce impacts of the freeway.

“You can’t build a freeway without some sorts of impacts,” Tait says.

“That has to be mitigated as much as possible. We believe we’ve done that as part of the plan for the South Mountain Freeway.”

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