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The controversial South Mountain Freeway pushes debating Valley groups into a tight corner.

It began with a flood of Biblical proportions. After the deluge receded, three survivors emerged: Earth Medicine Man, Coyote, and Elder Brother, who set about repopulating the world. “Elder Brother is our creator,” Akimel O’odham elder Mike Tashquinth explains. “And South Mountain is his home.”


Sitting in his house on the Gila River Indian Community – a quiet, rural area between the purple fortress of the Sierra Estrella and the outstretched western arms of South Mountain – Tashquinth holds up a weaving of a circular maze. It depicts the philosophy of the Akimel O’odham, or Pima, people. At the top is a person standing at a large entrance, representing the wide-open world of the newborn. As the maze goes on, it mirrors adult life: full of twists, turns, blinds and backtracks. Then, at what represents the end of life, the labyrinth comes full circle to the wide area and to a black dot at the middle. “That’s the center of the universe for us. And that’s what Muhadag Do’ag – South Mountain – is to us... When you finally get there, that’s when you reach, you could say, heaven,” Tashquinth says. “They say that if anything destroys that mountain in any kind of way, it’ll be the end of the world.”

That’s just what Tashquinth and his tribe are fighting against: the destruction of a small part of Muhadag Do’ag – and the heart of their community – to make way for the South Mountain Freeway. It’s perhaps the most controversial highway ever proposed in the Valley. Transportation authorities and many West Valley commuters contend that with population in the Valley expected to almost double over the next 25 years, the freeway will be necessary to accommodate swelling traffic. They argue it will reduce congestion and air pollution. But environmentalists say the freeway would perpetuate an unsustainable, energy- and pollution-intensive transportation model that promotes suburban sprawl. And many Ahwatukee residents say the freeway would destroy not only their homes but their community’s atmosphere, without actually benefitting commuters. As plans for the long-delayed freeway move forward, the Valley is heading for a defining fork in the road.

Rewind to 1985, back when State Route 51, Loop 101, and an I-10 segment through Downtown were merely a glimmer in Phoenix’s eye. Maricopa County voters approved a half-cent sales tax to fund construction of a Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) Regional Freeway System, an asphalt circulation system whose veins would loop around the Valley. Three years later, a plan and environmental assessment were completed for the South Mountain Freeway. But funding shortfalls delayed progress on the roadway, necessitating a redo on the environmental assessment beginning in 2001. In 2012, the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC), which has a seat on the MAG, voted on whether they wanted the freeway to run through their land, off their land, or nowhere at all. They chose the “no-build” option. As a sovereign nation, GRIC has every right to forbid construction of a freeway on their land, but not off their land. So plans continued to move forward for a freeway entirely off tribal land.

A Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the freeway was released earlier this year, followed by a 90-day public comment period that ended in July. Currently, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) is revising the DEIS to include the public input received. It plans to release the final EIS around February 2014, at which point another 60-day public comment period will ensue. After that, ADOT and the Federal Highway Administration will prepare a Record of Decision, the final determination on whether to build the freeway and, if so, which route to choose. 

According to current estimates, the 22-mile-long, eight-lane freeway would cost $1.9 billion; construction could commence as early as 2015 and take about five years to complete. ADOT’s current preferred alignment for the South Mountain Freeway would run along Pecos Road in Ahwatukee, displacing 138 households. It would turn northwest, cutting through 31.3 acres of the southwest part of South Mountain Park. The freeway would then go north, connecting to the I-10 near 59th Avenue, necessitating the displacement of 41 businesses and 733 residences.

ADOT’s analysis team estimates 120,000 to 175,000 vehicles would use the South Mountain Freeway each day in 2035. They assert that without the freeway, the I-10 and surface streets will become increasingly congested, creating long commute times. “On Baseline Road, you’re going to, in some point of time moving forward, have to sit through three to five lights, every traffic signal, trying to get home,” says Chaun Hill, project manager with ADOT. “Laveen has 40,000 people who live there. Right now, without a freeway, that’s the way they go, so the more that this area fills out and becomes more developed, the more congested these facilities become.”

Under the current system, explains Timothy Tait, assistant communication director for ADOT, “People remain essentially held hostage by the Broadway Curve as the only freeway connection between the East and West Valleys. And it’s already locked up, and there’s not a lot else we can do to it. You can only expand I-10 so much, and that has its own consequences... When we design a freeway system, it’s just that: It’s a system. We don’t design individual freeways; they don’t operate independently. So when you pull one piece out of the equation, it has an impact on the entire system.”

In the DEIS, ADOT examines how traffic might increase over the next two decades and estimates how the South Mountain Freeway might affect commutes from Laveen and Ahwatukee. The study puts the commute time from 51st Avenue and Elliot Road in Laveen to Downtown Phoenix at 22 minutes during morning rush hour in 2010.  It estimates the same journey will take 31 minutes in 2035 if the South Mountain Freeway is not built and 23 minutes in 2035 if the freeway is built. However, that 23-minute commute time does not represent a journey along the South Mountain Freeway; it was calculated for the same surface-street route, which would be less congested thanks to the presence elsewhere of the South Mountain Freeway.

Surprisingly, the DEIS does not posit how long any journey might take on the actual South Mountain Freeway. That’s worth noting, particularly when one considers commutes from Ahwatukee. The study pegs the commute times from the I-10/Pecos Road interchange in Ahwatukee to Downtown Phoenix at 17 minutes in 2010 and 31 minutes in 2035. It estimates the same I-10 journey would take 26 minutes if the freeway is built. But it seems unfathomable that an Ahwatukee resident would save any time by driving to Downtown on the South Mountain Freeway, which would take them all the way west to 59th Avenue and back, or that he or she would consider adding that many extra miles to their weekday commute. It seems only those Ahwatukee residents who commute to the West Valley would benefit from the freeway. But, of course, the South Mountain Freeway would also offer East-West Valley commuters and semi trucks traveling from Tucson and Mexico to California a less congested alternative to the I-10.

Commute times do not merely represent maddening delays, ADOT’s Hill stresses. Congestion causes increased idling at traffic lights and on parking-lot-freeways, which creates more pollution. “Traffic signals that you’re waiting at two times today, you’re going to be waiting at four or five times tomorrow, without this facility... So that makes [the air quality] worse than if those are flowing along with one or two traffic signal time cycle lengths, or when the Broadway Curve is actually moving instead of parked, and when you have this other facility that’s moving too.”

But the local chapter of the Sierra Club, which opposes the freeway, counters in their literature that the air quality equation is a simple one: “More vehicles traveling more miles equal more pollution.” The environmental group argues the freeway will increase sprawl in an already sprawling city: “The new access to areas previously undeveloped results in new housing, shopping, and business centers, and people must drive longer distances to reach their homes, schools, or work, creating more traffic and congestion. Sprawl also affects our standard of living by making car ownership mandatory. Without efficient transportation options, it becomes critical to own a car in order to participate in our society. Funding highway projects disproportionately with other transportation options severely limits our choices.”

“This project was planned when gas was cheap – a dollar per gallon or less,” Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, announced last year. “With higher gasoline prices, it makes a lot more sense to invest in transit, biking and walking and rail – projects that will help us all save money at the pump, keep our air cleaner, and reduce carbon pollution that contributes to climate change – rather than costly freeway projects.”

And then there is the destruction of part of South Mountain Park. The freeway would cut through about a mile of parkland and sever three western arms of the mountain with cuts 70, 190 and 220 feet high. Freeway supporters argue the 31.3 acres of the park affected are in a remote area and comprise just .2 percent of the entire mountain preserve, which is the largest municipal park in the country.

ADOT’s Tait says plans would have avoided the park if at all possible: “The federal government looks for reasonable and feasible ways to avoid public parks and public spaces, and in this case, there isn’t any. Because the park stops at the reservation boundary, so if you can’t go through the reservation, you gotta go through the park.

“You look at freeways and highways throughout the state,” he continues, “and they all have impacts to mountain slopes, because we’re kind of a mountainous state... In metro Phoenix you have the 51 that goes through the Dreamy Draw. There are some significant cuts there, and that also is park space. So it’s just kind of one of those things that goes with building a freeway in metro Phoenix.”

But South Mountain Park habitués say slicing through the mountains would ruin a culturally significant area meant to be preserved as a refuge for recreation, wildlife, and nature. “Phoenix has people and companies relocating here because of our beautiful weather and outdoor lifestyle,” Susanne Rothwell of the Save Our Mountains Foundation declared during one of ADOT’s recent public hearings. “If you take away the heart of our preserve system by chopping into the southwest ridges of South Mountain Park, we believe that will be a huge negative.”

Environmental groups also contend the freeway would fragment wildlife habitat, cutting off the corridors that form natural “freeways” for animals traveling between South Mountain Park and the Estrella Mountains. ADOT’s plans accommodate these well-known corridors with underpasses, though wildlife experts point out many species are skittish about using tunnels that run beneath freeways.    

And the Gila River Indian Community is deeply concerned not only about the mountain they hold sacred but also the freeway’s impacts to air and noise pollution, and the rural ambiance of their homeland, which would directly border the freeway. Lori Thomas-Riddle with the Gila River Alliance for a Clean Environment (GRACE) describes a day she attended an ADOT public hearing: “I asked, ‘Is our air any less important than yours?’ Because all that freeway is going to do is move that bad air out of Phoenix, or alleviate that air, and it’s gonna bring it right here where there’s two main mountains, and it’s gonna create a pocket.”

Thomas-Riddle says the Gila River Indian Community has already suffered an environmental disaster from a now abandoned crop duster airstrip in the area; the EPA found extremely high levels of the banned carcinogenic pesticide toxaphene in the soil. Thomas-Riddle says she and her family have suffered numerous health problems including multiple miscarriages resulting from the pesticides, and she worries air pollution from the freeway would exacerbate the health problems of some people in the community.

Renee Jackson, a GRIC resident and sustainability student, also worries about the psychological impact the freeway would have on her people. She says that while fighting against the freeway, she and her two children have become more connected to their culture and history, as has the rest of their community: “There is almost a revitalization of culture that, although we didn’t want it to come because of this fight, it has come.”

When elder Mike Tashquinth speaks of the prophecy that the destruction of South Mountain would cause the destruction of the world, Jackson says she heard that message many times, but “it really didn’t hit me until I thought about it from a student and young person’s perspective,” she says. “I can understand it because if we lose this mountain, if we lose this battle, it’s going to make such a huge negative impact on the morale of the community because we’ve lost another significant battle. Because we only have so much land – at least legally – that we can call our own that this is huge for us. This is the last stand, basically. I understand now why the continued desecration of that mountain, but also destroying a part of that mountain, will lead to that demise of us as O’odhams, because we will start to lose ourselves. They’re right on our doorstep. If we give them one more step, then all our people will change. The city will come in and take over, and we will not be able to recognize our home.”

Many Ahwatukee residents also worry about the destruction of 138 of their homes and to their community as a whole. “There’s a reason why people in Ahwatukee should be very concerned about this freeway,” says Steve Brittle, president of Don’t Waste Arizona, which, along with Protecting Arizona’s Resources and Children (PARC), plans to sue to stop the freeway. “It will bring in all this extra air pollution. It will bring in all this extra noise. It will devalue people’s property pretty significantly. There’s never been a freeway ever built in this country that did not cause property devaluation. And when you look at the special community of Ahwatukee, it’s designed to be a certain kind of community. There’s lots of people recreating outside, there’s no industry there. This would forever change the character of that area.”

But many Laveen residents trumpet not only the benefits to their commute times but also the economic development and amenities the freeway would bring to their often underserved community. Plus, proponents tout the number of construction jobs that would be generated over the five-year building period. And pro-development coalition We Build Arizona points out voters have twice approved the Regional Freeway System – in 1985 and 2004 – and that the planning assessment for the South Mountain Freeway has already taken 12 years and cost taxpayers millions of dollars. “That is more than enough time to do what voters have twice directed,” the group says on their website.

Indeed, judging by sentiment at various informational meetings and comment boards, support for the freeway appears to be higher in Laveen – whose residents do not have easy access to a highway and would likely benefit from South Mountain Freeway access to Downtown and the West and East Valleys – than in Ahwatukee, whose residents have easy access to the I-10 and who would be unlikely to commute to Downtown on the freeway. Given that the portion of the freeway between Ahwatukee and Laveen is the most controversial, passing as it does along the Gila River Indian Community and cutting through South Mountain Park, it has been pointed out that perhaps the best solution is to eliminate that planned portion of the freeway and keep the Laveen-to-I-10 segment. However, that would mean people who commute between the West Valley and East Valley would still have the I-10 as their only option.

Whatever the Valley decides to do, it must certainly consider all its options carefully before proceeding. Because when it comes to big freeway projects, U-turns aren’t allowed.