Picture Rocks (a rural, unincorporated community west of Marana) was the place to be this past Tuesday night when representatives from the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) came to a Citizens for Picture Rocks (C4PR) meeting to brief residents about the proposed I-11 highway. I counted about 120 people overflowing the community center and although people were mostly polite, it was obvious feelings run raw on this subject.
I-11, is a new north-south Interstate Highway envisioned to someday run from Mexico to Canada. In Arizona, the project is at the Tier 1 Environmental Impact Study (EIS) stage to identify a Selected Corridor Alternative on a 280-mile long corridor between Nogales and Wickenburg. This EIS was authorized by the State Transportation Board in December 2014 and was slated to run for three years at a cost of $15 million to determine the “preferred alternative” route.
Jay Van Echo, ADOT project manager for I-11, gave a “15 minute presentation” that must have lasted at least 45 minutes. During that time, he frequently stated that the “facility” (highway) project is in the deliberative, not decision stage. But, at a meeting in May 2016, he acknowledged there are only two serious possibilities: “through the Avra Valley or along the existing I-10.” The latter alternative involved the possibility of double-decking six miles of Ruthrauff and I-19. According to then-ADOT State Engineer Jennifer Toth in 2008, “it would do everything planners want for the next 30 years at one-third the cost. That would save taxpayers nearly $2 billion.” But, according to the article in TucsonLocalMedia.com, ADOT rejected that option due to “cost”.
History like this might be why, despite very diverse political viewpoints, the Picture Rocks community (and many other stakeholders) is united in their opposition to an outcome many believe has been predetermined. That outcome, is a new interstate running through pristine Sonoran desert, and what they want to know is, how to stop it.
Although unified in opposition, they voiced a variety of reasons for it. Most of course, are concerned about losing their homes or having their property values negatively impacted. One resident though, raised concerns about how the proposed highway would obviously help Mexico and Canada, but was not about putting “America First”. Another, wondered how the President’s border wall would affect the project. Yet another raised a concern about a conspiracy between various government entities and with wealthy people who appear to be buying up land in the area. Nothing it appears, is apolitical, or what it seems, these days.
Other questions included concern for how pollution from trucks would be mitigated, whether homeowners would be fully compensated for their property if forced to move, whether there was any benefit for residents of Avra Valley (which abuts the Ironwood National Monument area) and when the final decision of a route would be made. On that last one, I never heard a definitive answer. What I gleaned from the i11study.com website, is that once the EIS analysis is complete this month, the effort will progress to the Final EIS from November 2018 to October 2019 to identify the preferred alternative and then the Record of Decision will identify the selected alternative between October and November 2019.
Van Echo repeated several times that there would be more opportunities for community members to provide comment and ask questions prior to the eventual decision being made. I got the impression though, that those responsible for this decision are not necessarily listening. Both the questions presented on behalf of the C4PR Board and members of the Picture Rocks Transportation Committee, and comments eventually allowed later by those in attendance, led me to that conclusion.
It’s not that people aren’t trying to be heard. The I-11 Joint Stakeholder Community Planning Group (JSCPG) provided a clear position in their I-11 position statement issued on August 3, 2018. Consisting of representatives from the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, (comprised of 34 environmental and community groups and representing 30,000 people) and others in Pima County and beyond, agreed that,
Of the two routes proposed for a future 1-11 highway, the expansion and reconfiguration of the existing I-10 and I-19 corridor is the only acceptable route. A by pass through Avra Valley is not acceptable.
I imagine a NIMBY (not in my backyard) approach to a project such as this is fairly common. After all, an interstate may be good for business, but I can’t imagine anyone wants it running through their neighborhood. In a flyer handed out at the meeting, the JSCPG raised the point that this project could provide significant opportunity to address historic consequences resulting from the construction of I-10, “which physically divided our community and diminished the quality of life of our downtown and other neighborhoods along the highway.” They also encouraged ADOT and FHWA to refer to the I-11 Super Corridor study submitted to ADOT in 2016. This transdisciplinary study was completed by the University of Arizona, Arizona State University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The recommendations they put forward consisted of a comprehensive approach such as “the addition of light and heavy rail, walking, cycling, new technology for controlling traffic, as well as incorporating alternative forms of energy production and transportation.
Albert Lannon, a Picture Rocks resident and member of the Avra Valley Coalition, concludes of the two routes available, double decking I-10 through town, or making the truck route through Avra Valley, the FHWA is leaning toward the latter. But, Lannon isn’t taking that eventuality sitting down. According to the Arizona Daily Independent, in January of this year, he filed a formal complaint with the Board of Supervisors alleging the County Administrator and his staff of ignoring BOS Resolution 2007-343 which expressly “oppose[d] the construction of any new highways in or around the county that have the stated purpose by [sic] bypassing the existing Interstate 10 as it is believed that the environmental, historic, archaeological, and urban form impacts could not be adequately mitigated.” The resolution also discussed Avra Valley as worthy of protection. His complaint was dismissed.
Unfortunately for the resident stakeholders and groups that want to protect our environment and wildlife, Pima County isn’t the only government entity now on-board with the project. According to PinalCentral.com, the “Pinal County Board of Supervisors passed its own resolution in 2010 in relation to Interstate 11, though this one expressed support for the project and deemed I-11 a ‘transportation priority.”‘ Likewise, both towns of Eloy and Casa Grande have issued statements of support for the project.
Meanwhile, Albert Lannon is not giving up and having watched the dynamics at the C4PR meeting, there are plenty who plan to fight on. Lannon obviously believes the cause is too important, claiming, “the new freeway would hinder existing businesses that cater to truckers driving on I-10 and damage the tourism industry that thrives in the many wildlife parks around Avra Valley.” He says his coalition will continue to hold candidates accountable. In an election year, maybe that matters, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.