Ground was broken Wednesday, Dec. 9 on the La Cañada road improvement project, with elected and appointed officials wearing bright orange hard hats turning dirt with gold-painted shovels in front of large heavy equipment.

"I think this is pretty cool for a backdrop, don't you?" Supervisor Ann Day asked an audience at La Cañada and Hardy on a cool Wednesday.

"It's a celebration that, finally, after a number of years in the planning, we are getting started," said Priscilla Cornelio, director of the Pima County Department of Transportation.

Not all were celebrating. Off to one side, Nancy Hanover and Marcia Rostad held signs urging officials to add mitigating noise- and sight-reducing walls on parts of La Cañada between Calle Concordia and Magee.

"Walls," said one sign. "$3 Million under budget — where's my wall?" read another.

"There's been some controversy with this project," to be built by Tucson company KE&G Construction for a low bid of $13.199 million, Cornelio allowed. "Today is bittersweet for some folks. … There are concerns, and we recognize that." She maintained "the road we've come up with, what we're going to do, is for the betterment of the community," to include motorists and residents alike.

"I've watched the fits and starts of this project over the years," and "fought the myriad controversies," Day said. "Despite the controversies, some of which remain with us this morning, and despite the disruption … this improvement is necessary. I'm confident it will provide a true benefit to the region when it's completed."

Day's "only regret is the RTA board should have approved the recommendations for additional walls made by the RTA subcommittee." Aggrieved neighbors "won" at the subcommittee level, but "lost in the Supreme Court, the RTA board, so to speak."

The La Cañada Magee Neighborhood Association hasn't given up. In a Dec. 7 letter to the board of supervisors, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, the RTA board and the DOT, LCMNA is asking for officials to visit three specific properties — 1461 W. Chapala, 7515 N. San Anna, and 1400 W. San Annetta — where mitigation is not recommended. The association is asking the individuals to "experience, firsthand, the manifestation and ramifications of the decisions you have made," and "explain to the homeowners how their homes are effectively mitigated from the significant impact of the roadway design and drainage improvements.

"These properties suffer extreme negative impact that undermines the established quality of life, safety and well-being of the residents," the letter reads. "This is not necessarily a sound wall issue, though sound may be part of the negative impact in some of the cases, but not all."

"A few walls and barriers could easily be put in place, utilizing a fraction of the savings," Day said.

Day yielded part of her time to Dave Davis, president of the LCMNA, who praised the work of his predecessors going back 30 years. "This is a second start" on road improvements, Davis said. "Luckily we've gotten this far with this start. There are still concerns" with the project's design.

"It is a good start," Davis said. He vows to "start working off-line" with people to pursue "small modifications to make this truly acceptable to all involved."

"We can't really throw away one community for another," Davis said.

The project was originally planned for construction with 1997 bond funds. "Unfortunately, there was not enough money to build it," Cornelio said. It took the 2006, voter-approved Regional Transportation Authority sales tax and plan to "undertake this project."

Design and engineering occurred, parcels were secured, artists selected, and federal 404 permits, "for which we had to wait and wait and wait to get them," secured.

Workers are salvaging more than 1,000 native plants along the construction project, Cornelio said. They'll be placed in a nursery, and "we'll bring them all back" for eventual replanting as the project nears completion. Five major washes are being crossed as well, with drainage improvements intended to keep La Cañada passable in stormy weather.

When the four-lane, divided, all-weather road is operational, "motorists will be very pleased," Cornelio said.

"When Pima County builds roads, we do it right," Day said. "I want to thank the neighbors, for patiently putting up with the county. Travel the next 18 months will be very inconvenient, probably."

Marana Mayor Ed Honea, current chairman of the RTA board, said La Cañada is "going to make it so much easier for everyone to get around the region."

Five of the nine major projects in the first phase of RTA are in the Northwest, he said. The economy has yielded low bids that are "saving us a lot of money right now. We have the ability to construct projects for extremely competitive prices. RTA is the only entity now that's dong well financially."

La Cañada is "a main arterial that connects Oro Valley to the rest of the region," said Oro Valley Mayor Paul Loomis, another RTA board member. "La Cañada was the example I used in the RTA campaign."

Loomis is "pleased" Pima County shares Oro Valley's commitment to multiple uses" with designed adjacent paths. "These improvements represent a win-win solution for our residents, and the region as a whole. This demonstrates true regional cooperation."

Cornelio praised the work of Rick Ellis, who heads the DOT design section. Work is progressing on numerous road projects "because of his efforts, and what a great job he's done."

Contractor KE&G has completed "a number of projects for Pima County," Cornelio said, "on time and under budget."

Company vice president Chris Albright said a dozen projects were undertaken by KE&G in Day's supervisor district during the last five years.

The groundbreaking "signifies our start," and means "we're one step closer to being done with this project," Albright said. He introduced key people on the project. "It's good we were the low, for us, to keep our tax dollars local, with local workers, too."

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