Citing environmental impacts and effects to Tucson’s existing I-10 businesses, the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted to oppose the route of a possible new interstate highway west of Tucson that would pass through Avra Valley.
The board passed a resolution on Aug. 16 stating opposition to the proposed Interstate 11 linking Nogales to Wickenburg. The resolution passed in a 4-1 vote, with Supervisor Steve Christy opposed.
The resolution follows the release of the Arizona Department of Transportation’s Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement on July 16 for the west route and several alternative routes. ADOT’s preferred choice is the western option, which would create irreversible changes to the landscape by cutting through Avra Valley.
Water, soil, and air pollution are predicted to be a direct consequence of building a new highway in the Avra Valley and Picture Rocks area, the Board of Supervisors said in its statement of opposition.
“The benefits don’t outweigh the damage that can’t be undone,” Supervisor Adelita Grijalva of District 5 said.
Grijalva said she is opposed to all proposed routes for I-11 for environmental protection. The western route would impact popular tourist destinations in Tucson such as the Saguaro National Park, Ironwood National Monument, and Tucson Mountain Park. The board’s statement says the new highway would be close enough to hear and see cars from these protected areas.
ADOT’s statement shows the western route would also cut through the Bureau of Reclamation’s Tucson Mitigation Corridor. This corridor is reserved for wildlife movement across the Central Arizona Project aqueduct. Placing a highway there would shrink available land for wildlife
“They keep coming up with different ways to try to configure this I-11 route and there isn’t any way to do it without devastating communities and our environment,” Grijalva said.
Grijalva is also concerned with lasting community effects.
“I think we need to learn from history,” Grijalva continued. “Where the I-10 is now, we had bustling communities there that were predominantly Latino and Mexican American, that (I-10) devastated that area.”
The board’s resolution said a new highway would divert potential customers from Tucson businesses along existing highways and suggested the state should save money by expanding current roads.
Supervisor Steve Christy of District 4 was the only board member to show support for the I-11 west route. As the former chair of the Arizona State Transportation Board, he is adamant to keep Tucson in the loop on new transportation plans.
“We are losing a lot of business from Mexico to ports of entry in Texas, I wanted to give us a seat at the table,” Christy said.
Christy worries that continuing to vote against new highways may lead to Pima County’s exclusion from state transportation plans. Christy said he helped lobby for Southern Arizona to be included in the new border-to-border highway plans.
Although this highway would create a new route for cross-border trade, the COVID pandemic has slowed those efforts.
“The holdup right now has nothing to do with access, it has to do with ensuring that both our border communities are safe,” Grijalva said.
Few community members agreed with Christy. Grijalva said the board received more than 100 community letters reiterating opposition to the west route during the public comment period.
One of these letters came from the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, a local nonprofit organization focused on Sonoran desert conservation.
“I don’t necessarily buy that there is a need for it,” Executive Director Carolyn Campbell said. Campbell said ADOT did not provide a direct response to the Coalition’s question on need.
Among many of the issues outlined in the Coalition’s letter were climate change and water conservation. “The United Nations climate change report just came out a couple of weeks ago and it says it’s worse than we thought, it’s red alert time,” said
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report on Aug. 9 showing an unprecedented change in climate worldwide due to sustained greenhouse gas emissions. The report recommends a rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to stabilize global temperatures.
Campbell said that a new highway would increase carbon emissions, contributing to climate change.
“If we’re going to keep it to the one-degree difference in warming, then we have to make some radical changes to carbon emissions, like driving,” Campbell said.
Campbell and Grijalva both said there are better options available.
“This is one of those things that we really have to balance smart and strategic growth versus sprawl, and I don’t want Tucson to become another Phoenix or another big metropolitan city,” said Grijalva.
Campbell said the preferred alternative east option is the only viable option. The eastern route would co-locate I-11 with I-10 and I-19. Campbell said they could tunnel I-11 underground to connect communities on top.
“They did that in Phoenix with a park on the top when they tunneled under Phoenix, kind of making up for the sins of the past when they built the freeway in the ’60s, which is bisecting barrios, and neighborhoods, particularly of poor people,” Campbell said.