The lawyer for the Gila River Indian Community last week filed a harshly worded response in federal appeals court over two highway planning agencies’ “unfair accusations and mischaracterizations” of its request to temporarily stop work on the South Mountain Freeway.
Meanwhile, the Arizona Department of Transportation has announced that major construction disruptions on Pecos Road will begin Monday as crews widen the thoroughfare as a prelude to freeway construction.
Work starting Monday will focus on widening the eastbound lanes of Pecos Road to create two additional lanes that will allow for continuous traffic in both directions along Pecos Road while the freeway is being built.
ADOT said it hopes to complete the widening project by March, but in the meantime people can expect the:
· Closing of shoulders and bike lanes;
· Relocation of street lights and the installation of temporary traffic signals;
· Paving of the existing median.
“During construction of the interim roadway, Pecos Road may be narrowed to one lane in each direction on weekdays, and several weekend closures will be necessary to relocate utilities, install temporary traffic signals, restripe the roadway and place barricades,” ADOT spokesman Dustin Krugel said in a release.
ADOT hopes to complete the work by March and then use the widened Pecos Road until it can shift motorists onto the freeway once that leg is completed sometime next year or early 2019.
The Federal Highway Administration and ADOT two weeks ago urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District to reject the request, disputing the community’s assertion that work so far had disturbed 20 Native American graves and accusing the community of shopping for a favorable judicial panel.
Attorney Jeffrey Molinar lashed out at both agencies, telling the court further work on the freeway before the appeal is resolved “would cause irreparable harm to resources that are vitally important to the Community’s culture, traditions, and religious beliefs.”
The Gila Community, as well as Ahwatukee-based Protect Arizona’s Resources and Children, are appealing a federal judge’s refusal last August to stop freeway work and on the grounds that ADOT and the FHWA conducted faulty environmental and economic studies to justify its need and safety.
In asking the appeals court to allow work to continue while it is considering the case, the highway agencies warned that even a temporary delay would cost taxpayers more than $60 million.
The 22-mile connector freeway between West Phoenix and Chandler is projected to cost $1.77 billion, making it the most expensive highway project in Arizona history.
“The benefit of preserving South Mountain and other protected areas far outweighs any harm from lost time or money and serves the greatest public interest,” Molinar told the court, adding that his client’s request for an injunction differs from the one PARC filed and lost about six weeks ago.
“The Community is a distinct party, in a separate appeal, with unique harms,” Molinar wrote.
“The agencies’ assertions of gamesmanship do not make them true,” he added. “Those assertions belittle the Community’s sovereign interests and are as offensive as they are wrong.”
Stating the state’s plan to cut through three South Mountain ridges “would be a devastating and irreversible loss” to Native Americans, Molinar accused ADOT and the FHWA of being “unable meaningfully to challenge the harm to the Community and need for an injunction.”
“The Community has unique interests in preserving South Mountain, which is one of its most sacred natural resources, and in saving other areas and artifacts of vital importance to its culture,” he wrote.
He also criticized the agencies for arguing that the Gila Community had been working with them to avoid harming any ancestral remains.
“Helping to mitigate—reduce harm—is not agreement that any harm should occur,” he said. “If the bulldozers come, as they might if this appeal fails, it is better to re- bury ancestors than leave them in the trash pile.”
“Although the Community necessarily engaged in discussions regarding mitigation—attempting to salvage as best it could its culture and resources should the project ultimately proceed—it consistently objected to the Freeway and never consented to the agencies’ decision,” Molinar wrote.
Molinar said further “construction also would disrupt trails, shrines, and other artifacts on or near the mountain” and said ADOT and the FHWA” “inappropriately dismiss the Community’s concern over the continuing disturbance of ancestral graves.”
“The declaration does not address the archaeological sites that the Community and ADOT have previously discussed, as ADOT contends, but rather specific human remains that neither the Community nor the agencies had known would be discovered,” Molinar added.
He also said ADOT and the FHWA were inflating the projected taxpayer cost of a work delay while the appeal is decided.
He also charged that they are “ignoring the costs of remedying a project that this court may find violates federal law, and blaming the Community for costs that they could have avoided if they had properly accounted for the risk of an appeal.”