South Mountain Freeway proposal to receive final decision soon

Emi Kamezaki//February 16, 2015

South Mountain Freeway proposal to receive final decision soon

Emi Kamezaki//February 16, 2015

An Arizona Department of Transportation video shows a portion of the proposed South Mountain Freeway. (ADOT website)
An Arizona Department of Transportation video shows a portion of the proposed South Mountain Freeway. (ADOT website)

The proposed South Mountain Freeway, which would complete the Loop 101 and Loop 202 freeway systems, is expected to receive final approval early this year.

The $1.9 billion project will be funded with federal and state money, as well as funds from Proposition 400, which was passed by Maricopa County voters in 2004. The Federal Highway Administration will prepare the “Final Record of Decision” according to the Arizona Department of Transportation.

“There is an expectation of the project going forward,” said Tim Tait, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Transportation.

The freeway’s proposed route would stretch along eight-lanes from Interstate 10 at 59th Avenue in Laveen to the I-10 and the Loop 202 San Tan Freeway in Chandler.

The route would pass through the southwest corner of South Mountain Park Preserve and parallel the Gila River Indian Community border along Pecos Road.

ADOT has been planning on building the freeway since the early 1980s, but because of funding shortfalls, construction was delayed, said Tait.

“It’s a freeway that was needed 20 years ago, and it’s a freeway that’s still needed today,” Tait said.

The South Mountain Freeway is necessary to address the needs of a growing population, improve road circulation and reduce travel times, according to the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement.

“We believe that there will certainly be benefits to the overall regional mobility and regional air quality,” Tait said, explaining that vehicles stopped in traffic cause unnecessary air pollution.

The freeway, Tait said, would also cultivate economic advancement in the surrounding area, as business owners are already waiting for the route to come online to provide increased access for customers.

However, even if the freeway is not built, the land near the route may still undergo construction “because the property is zoned for residential and neighborhood commercial development,” the impact statement noted.

The South Mountain Freeway would link the southeast and southwest parts of the Valley, much like the Loop 101 connects the east and west parts of the Valley, said Eric Anderson, transportation director for Maricopa Association of Governments.

“From my perspective, the South Mountain (Freeway) is needed to provide a critical regional link in our freeway network,” Anderson said in an email.

The project has faced some opposition, as it would call for the removal of 31.3 acres of the South Mountain Park Preserve.  However, ADOT is working with the city of Phoenix to replace that land with other park land, Tait said.

Some are skeptical that the freeway is the best solution to traffic congestion.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter, does not believe ADOT has sufficiently demonstrated a need for the freeway.

“We’ve been building freeways in the Valley for a long time and we still have traffic congestion,” Bahr said, suggesting that money would be better spent on improving existing structures.

Although the construction of a freeway is helpful in driving development, traffic congestion relief is often short-lived, Bahr said.

“We question the assumptions regarding air quality.” Bahr said.  “There are a lot of things that we can do to improve air quality, but building a freeway is not one of them.”

Because the construction of a freeway would invite more vehicles into the area, thus increasing pollution, improvements made to the mass transit system would be a more viable option – an option that was not considered by ADOT, Bahr said.

The additional freeway would also increase dependence on fossil fuels, increase energy waste and increase the burden on taxpayers according to the Sierra Club’s comments on the impact statement.

The Sierra Club is also concerned with the impacts of the freeway on wildlife, Bahr said.

The portion of the freeway that would pass through the South Mountain Park Preserve would cut off a wildlife corridor and negatively impact many wildlife populations. This also raised concerns with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Bahr said.

By cutting through the wildlife corridor, the freeway would isolate South Mountain, thus reducing the area’s genetic diversity, Bahr said.

The freeway would also have negative health effects on children in the area, she said.

ADOT did not include the Sierra Club’s comments on the draft impact statement, and issued an amendment for inadvertently omitting the comments from the final statement.

Bahr said ADOT was “totally dismissive” of the Sierra Club’s comments, and did not take them into consideration for the final impact statement.

The Sierra Club isn’t the only organization that opposes the freeway.

Howard Shanker, attorney for Protecting Arizona’s Resources and Children (PARC), said it would essentially create a truck bypass where one isn’t needed.

“I can tell you that the project seems to be a huge waste of taxpayers’ money … and it will have virtually no impact on people commuting to downtown Phoenix from the East Valley or West Valley during rush hour,” Shanker said.

PARC views the freeway as unnecessary and detrimental to the surrounding community, Shanker said.

“PARC’s concerns are also with the health and well-being of the people who live in the nearby vicinity,” Shanker said, expressing concerns for the residents of Ahwatukee and the Gila River Indian Community.

In the project’s earlier stages, ADOT considered possible freeway routes that would cross through reservation land, but the tribe voted against the freeway’s construction on its land in February 2012.

Still, the portion of the freeway that crosses through the South Mountain Preserve “would alter access to the mountains for traditional and religious practices by Native American communities,” according to the impact statement.

Lori Riddle, a member of the tribe and co-founder of Gila River Alliance for a Clean Environment (GRACE), said during the project’s public hearing she believes the impact statement is incomplete and does not include certain important studies.

“It’s biased,” Riddle said during the hearing. “As I have always told my community members, these studies usually favor on the side of where the money is.”

Riddle said that her people have survived for centuries without a proper transportation system, and many do not own vehicles.

GRACE filed a federal civil rights complaint against ADOT in 2013. The Gila River tribe petitioned to have the South Mountain Range designated as a sacred place and the traditional cultural property of the tribe. However, ADOT responded with a letter saying the complaint should be filed after the Final Record of Decision is made.

“Do we not matter?” Riddle said. “The air that we breathe, is our air any less important than the people of Phoenix? And you’re blasting through sacred mountain that is religious and sacred to our people.”

Several other tribe members reached out to ADOT in opposition to the freeway’s construction. Many of these comments came in the form of handwritten letters, including one from 13-year-old Frances Stevens.

“I’m against the freeway (being) built because the pollution will make us sick (and) also destroy our plant life, in the future even make our animals die or get sick,” Stevens wrote. “For the meetings, you should know that some of the community members would like to attend the meetings but have no ride to attend, so please listen to us and hear what we have to say.”

The freeway project also faced criticism in its earlier stages, from groups such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which found problems in the draft of the project’s impact statement when it was released to the public for comments and review in 2013.

The statement is an environmental analysis that compares the freeway’s social, economic and environmental impacts, and identifies ways to avoid or reduce these impacts, according to the document.

The draft was submitted to the EPA, which on July 23, 2013, rated the statement as “3 – Inadequate Information,” due to insufficient analysis on potential impacts, according to a letter from Lisa Hanf, the assistant director of the enforcement division of the EPA.

The impact statement did not sufficiently assess and disclose the potential air quality impacts, nor did it confirm whether the project met the Clean Air Act’s Transportation Conformity requirements, according to Hanf’s letter.

ADOT and the Federal Highway Administration reviewed comments and drafted the final version of the impact statement in 2013, which was open for review until Dec. 29, 2014.

The EPA had further objections to the final version of the impact statement, due to potential health impacts on children, wildlife and other sensitive groups, according to Hanf’s letter.

Groups such as Don’t Waste Arizona, the Arizona PIRG Education Fund and several others, also wrote comments opposing the freeway’s construction.

Yet, groups such as the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Arizona Rock Products Association and others support the freeway’s construction, according to comments made on the impact statement.

Steve Trussell, executive director of Arizona Rock Products Association, expressed his organization’s support of the project during a public hearing.

“The (South Mountain Freeway) will create 30,000 jobs during the next five- to six-year construction period, and result in a $2 billion investment in the Phoenix area economy.” Trussell said.

The impact statement and all comments can be viewed on the ADOT website.

ADOT has already acquired 27 homes in the proposed freeway corridor, and if this route is approved, approximately 170 more houses and apartments will be displaced, Tait said.

The project is awaiting its Final Record of Decision, which will determine whether freeway construction can proceed. This document, prepared by the Highway Administration, will officially either approve or deny the freeway’s construction. ADOT fully expects the project to move forward.

Comments from environmental groups and others who oppose the project will be considered in the Highway Administration decision, ADOT said.

“Having vehicles that are not stuck in traffic is a benefit to all of us,” Tait said.