More than a year has passed since the first wildlife bridge in the Sonoran Desert, and a nearby underpass, were completed north of Oro Valley along North Oracle Road. The project was back in the spotlight last month when the Pima Association of Governments and the Regional Transportation Authority presented the 2017 Timothy M. Ahrens Partnering Award to the Arizona Department of Transportation for coordinating the collaborative effort behind the roadway overhaul.
The linkages were included in a project to widen North Oracle Road (also known as State Route 77) as part of the voter-approved 2005 RTA plan, which included $45 million for wildlife passages. Roughly $11 million was spent on the Oracle road linkages, and required cooperation from the Arizona State Land Department, U.S. Forest Service and the Rancho Vistoso Homeowners Association. Pima County also funded additional land acquisitions near the development.
The award was established in 2013 to recognize “the spirit of collaboration and partnering” of Ahrens, who was the RTA manager during development of the 20-year RTA plan. Responsible for hundreds of presentations during the public outreach phase of the plan, Ahrens also managed the RTA’s 35-member citizens’ advisory committee before the RTA plan was approved.
“Tim was really committed to trying to build broad groups of people that could come together to achieve a broad-based goal,” said PAG deputy director James DeGrood. “In many ways, Tim was the architect of the RTA plan that went to voters.”
DeGrood said the Oracle Road project “best exemplified” Ahren’s spirit of partnering and best reflected his values in that it required multiple agencies and organizations to achieve a common goal, embrace the interests of regional stakeholders, resolve conflict, incorporate team-building activities and perpetuate the spirit of cooperation.
For the first time, roadway planners saw some of the environmental community come out and support a road building plan because of included mitigation for wildlife needs, DeGrood said.
“We take very seriously our need to honor the commitments that we have made to promote wildlife linkages that are impacted by transportation projects,” he said. “From the standpoint of PAG and its role in managing the RTA, we have an interest in building broad-based support in whatever we are trying to do. If we have a broad-based support for a transportation initiative, then we can move forward…If we are alienating interest areas, then we may not be as successful as we might otherwise be.”
When the project was completed, partners including the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Sky Island Alliance, Tucson Audubon Society and the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection formed an ad-hoc committee to address monitoring, signage, website development and outreach to the community.
More than 1,500 individual animals have been recorded making use of either the under or overpass since its completion last year, including mule deer, javelina, roadrunners and more.
While Coalition director Carolyn Campbell said the documented usage of the linkages is in itself a success, she said that the public understanding of the importance of the linkages is another victor in itself.
“It is crucial, and people are really starting to understand that you can have parks as big as Catalina State Park or the Tortillita Mountain Park, but if they are just isolated the species are going to die off,” she said. “People are generally starting to understand that connectivity is crucial to the survival and thriving of species.”