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Planners for the controversial Interstate 11 highway proposed for Southern Arizona are moving to formally identify possible routes through the federal NEPA process.  A three-year Tier One Environmental Impact Study, authorized by the State Transportation Board in December, 2014 at a cost of $15 million, will try to identify a “preferred alternative” route.  However, Arizona Dept. of Transportation  (ADOT) Project Manager Jay Van Echo, meeting with activists from Picture Rocks and Avra Valley on May 18, acknowledged that there were really only two serious possibilities: through the Avra Valley or along the existing I-10.  There will also be a rarely-selected “No Build” alternative.

Only two actual proposals are currently on the table: the Avra Valley route proposed by Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, and a less-expensive double-decking of six miles of Interstate 10 from Ruthrauff to I-19, raised but then dismissed by ADOT staff.  The proposed “Sonoran Corridor” west of I-19 is also part of the plan and was originally labeled “I-11” on County maps.  The Sonoran Corridor was turned down by voters last November as part of a bond package even though it was tied to popular road repairs.

The project starts with publication of intent in the Federal Register May 20, followed by a series of public meetings in Wickenburg, Buckeye, Casa Grande, Tucson, and in the Nogales area.  Two Tucson meetings are tentatively scheduled but not yet confirmed: June 22 at the Riverpark Inn in Tucson, and June 23 at Marana Middle School.  Both will run from 4 – 7 p.m. to allow for participation when people leave their jobs.

The informal meeting with Robin Clark from the Avra Valley Coalition, Paul Flemm from Citizens for Picture Rocks, and this reporter, was at the offices of the Gordley Group, a public relations and marketing firm contracted by the Arizona Dept. of Transportation.  In addition to civil engineer Van Echo, also attending were company president Jan Gordley and Public Involvement Director Alice Templeton.  Templeton said they were “advocates for process without concern over the outcome” and wanted to gather as much public input as possible.  

This meeting was, according to Van Echo, one of many with various officials and stakeholders, including environmental groups.  When asked if the Center for Biological Diversity had been among them, the response was negative.  It was pointed out that Executive Director Kierán Suckling lives in the path of the “Huckelberry Highway” and just might be an interested party.

 

OVERCOMING PAST HISTORY

 

The Gordley Group’s clients include upscale developments like Civano, Academy Village, La Posada Retirement Community, along with the Tuscon Unified School District and the town of Oro Valley.  Testimonials on the Gordley website include ADOT, City of Tucson, highway builders Achen-Gardner Construction, and the Metro-Pima Alliance, advocates for commercial real estate and development.   

Interestingly, while proclaiming “neutrality,” Public Involvement Director Templeton sits on the Metro-Pima Alliance Board of Directors with real estate developer, and potential Sonoran Corridor beneficiary, Don Diamond.  Diamond’s unbuilt Swan Southlands development would receive a free highway along its western flank if the defeated I-11 leg were built.  Members of the Pima County Board of Supervisors have stated publically that they are looking for ways to revive the highway.

The three community activists warned that there was a lot of bad history to be overcome, starting with the State Transportation Board’s 2008 Tucson meeting where a bypass through the Avra Valley was approved without hearing from a single one of the more than 60 people who had requested to be heard.  That provoked a commotion that resulted in police being called, a recess, and an agreement to let representatives of Saguaro National Park, US Bureau of Reclamation, Arizona Game and Fish, and an Avra Valley activist to be heard – but all after the vote had been taken.  A lack of the $3 million needed prevented the “major investment study” from going forward.

During the I-11 planning process, public meetings were held as far away from concerned citizens as possible, and in the later stages questions or comments had to be written down and then selected by the chair.  Supporters of I-11 were given the floor to speak while opponents were not recognized and had to literally grab the microphone.

County Administrator Huckelberry disparaged double-decking I-10 citing earthquakes in San Francisco while planning for an elevated portion of I-11 to clear an insufficient right-of-way between the Tohono O’odham Nation and the federal Tucson Mitigation Corridor at Mile Wide and Sandario Roads built for wildlife transit when the CAP canal was constructed.

Double-decking six miles of I-10, according to then-ADOT State Engineer Jennifer Toth in 2008, would do everything planners want for the next 30 years at one-third the cost.  That would save taxpayers nearly $2 billion.  ADOT rejected that option due to “cost.”

In addition to citing the negative effects of a major highway through the Avra Valley on communities, wildlife, archaeological sites, Saguaro and Tucson Mountain Parks, the Desert Museum, Kitt Peak, etc. the I-11 opponents pointed out that, besides the Sonoran Corridor gift to Don Diamond, Huckelberry’s highway would enrich another real estate speculator, Mesa’s Wilford Cardon, whose companies own over 1500 vacant acres along the County Administrator’s route.  

Cardon and Diamond, who served on Cardon’s campaign committee for Secretary of State, are multi-millionaire allies willing to spend lots of money to get their way with politicians.  According to the New York Times, 

Diamond has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for federal candidates and is very close to Arizona Senator John McCain.  McCain, along with his 2016 election rival Ann Kirkpatrick, sponsored amendments to the recent FAST Act that will allow I-11 and the Sonoran Corridor to receive federal transportation funds.

JOBS…IN MEXICO

Avra Valley impacts aside, critics cite the I-11 planners’ Corridor Justification Report to show that I-11 is intended to facilitate research and development in Nevada and Arizona, with manufacture, production in Mexico.  Wages according to the study, will soon be lower in Mexico than in China, attracting American companies to “nearshore” across the border.  The planners call it “integrative manufacturing.”

The report, available at i11study.com, also projects Mexico attracting Asian shipping away from West Coast ports to the Mexican Port of Guaymas, currently being expanded at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Project Manager Van Echo, who says he is “neutral to a fault,” suggested to the group that creating jobs in Mexico might be a good thing.

In addition to the public meetings public comment can be made at i11study.com website, by e-mail to i-11ADOTStudy@hdrinc.com, by toll-free phone to 1-844-544-8049, or by mail to Interstate 11 Tier 1 EIS Study Team, c/o ADOT Communications, 1655 W. Jackson Street, Mail Drop 126F, Phoenix, AZ 85007.

The Arizona Riverpark Inn is at 350 S. Freeway, just west of I-10 and south of Cushing Street.  Marana Middle School is at 12285 W. Grier Road.  From I-10 take the Marana Road exit 236, go south on Sandario, left on Grier.  Watch for confirmation of date, place and time in the media.

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