Special to AFN

The Arizona Department of Transportation still must acquire 43 percent of the properties it needs for the South Mountain Freeway and has yet to finish about a quarter of the highway’s design, the developer’s spokeswoman told the Chandler Chamber of Commerce last week.

But a November 2019 opening of the entire 22-mile stretch is still anticipated, Theresa Gunn, spokeswoman for Connect 202 Partners, told the Chamber’s public policy committee during a panel discussion on Valley freeways last week.

Meanwhile, a representative of the Ahwatukee organization trying to stop the freeway urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at a hearing earlier last week to withhold a permit needed for its construction until a court fight is concluded “to avoid unnecessary liability and permanent damage to the nation’s aquatic resources.”

The Corps of Engineers hearing and Gunn’s presentation came amid a virtual standstill in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on an appeal from a federal judge’s ruling that allowed construction to begin.

That appeal is being pursued primarily by the Ahwatukee-based Protect Arizona’s Resources and Children and the Gila River Indian Community, which say the $1.77-billion project poses health and other environmental threats.

No action is expected in the next stage of the appeal – the setting of a hearing date before a three-judge panel – until next month because the Gila Community obtained an extension to May 30 of a deadline for its final brief in the case.

In her progress report, Gunn noted that the freeway is a “design-build” project that allows for construction even while the highway is still being designed. That approach is projected to save more than $200 million in what is Arizona’s most expensive freeway project in history.

Gunn said 77 percent of the design and 57 percent of right-of-way property acquisition have been completed, although she did not indicate the areas of the freeway path that have yet to be designed or acquired.

Homes, businesses and land in the freeway’s path can be legally taken through eminent domain court action, though ADOT has preferred to negotiate the purchase of private property.

Most – if not all – of that property acquisition is believed to be on the western end of the thoroughfare.

She also said only 5 percent of utilities have been relocated and about only 7 percent of construction has been completed.

Gunn also disclosed that the other half of the interim Pecos Road, extending between 24th Street and Chandler Boulevard, will open next month.

And she said it’s likely the 40th Street Bridge will be the first completed among the 40 bridges that will span the freeway at various points along the corridor between the Chandler Interchange on I-10 and the 59th Avenue interchange in west Phoenix.

ADOT is spending about $18 million to $25 million a month right now on freeway construction and planning, Gunn disclosed, adding that slightly less than a third of the expected 1,400 workers who will be employed at the peak of construction are already on the job.

Gunn’s presentation May 12 came three days after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a hearing in Laveen on a permit that freeway builders need because the freeway is near several wells as well as the Salt River.

Representing PARC, environmental activist Stephen M. Brittle suggested that the Corps was being rushed to judgment on the permit.

“Having participated in proposed permit processes before, which seem to plod on for years, I wonder why this one seems to be accelerated,” he said.

Gila Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said the freeway “crosses over 30 washes and waterways” and “impacts the environment of the community’s reservation. This is not an alignment the Corps should permit.”

ADOT told the Corps. the Ahwatukee segment of the freeway would have culverts that will channel storm water away from flood-prone areas.

It is unclear when the Corps might make a decision on the permit. ADOT already has said it intends to continue construction while the federal agency considers what to do.

Because the design has not been completed, Brittle said, it’s impossible for the Corps to determine whether the freeway poses a danger to waterways.

“The Corps of Engineers is continuing this pattern of vagueness and inadequate analysis and planning by not disclosing what the final damages and mitigations might be.,” Brittle said, adding:

“If the Corps of Engineers doesn’t know these, then there is no basis for a permit or even this hearing. In short, the permit as proposed is too vague to be valid, and is a moving target, and therefore illegal.”

Brittle said the Corps is obliged “to minimize adverse effects on populations of plants and animals, as well as human uses, such as recreation, besides controlling runoff, either onto the Ahwatukee Foothills or Gila River Indian Community’s side” of the freeway.

He also said that currently permits forbid the removal of soil and gravel from river banks, but that companies hope to mine the area around Salt River to sell sand and gravel.

“We would hope the design isn’t being created with the profits of sand and gravel companies in mind,” Brittle said.

Brittle also disputed the Corps’ expectation that freeway workers are doing everything they can to minimize environmental damage.

“Despite the Corps’ assurances,” he said, “contractors for the freeway’s construction have already exhibited a failure to take proper care of natural resources and seem to be motivated more by speediness than proper care.”

He noted other questions remain:

What possible hazardous materials will be uncovered or generated, and how will they be handled?

Where will water used in construction be stored before discharge into protected waterways and how will it be treated?

What flood-control plans have been made, given “the inadequacy and incompetence of ADOT”?

“How groundwater from Kyrene De La Estrella, Kyrene Akimel A-al, Bridgeway Community Church and Foothills Mountain Ranch will get south of the freeway, as the freeway will form a dam?”

Brittle also said Estrella and Akimel schools and Foothills Mountain Ranch could “pay the price” of a major deluge because ADOT is relying too heavily on the HOA’s retention area south of Liberty Lane.

“Is this sufficient, reasonable, prudent, ethical … legal?” he asked.

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