With a new round of legal attacks on the South Mountain Freeway slated to begin Thursday, crews have begun making major excavation on the thoroughfare’s western end.
“A 300-foot-long cut along the embankments of Interstate 10 near 55th Avenue is the first sign of construction in the West Valley for the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway,” the Arizona Department of Transportation announced in a release last week.
Meanwhile, briefs by the Ahwatukee-base Protect Arizona’s Resources and Children and the Gila River Indian Community are supposed to be filed on Thursday in San Francisco as freeway opponents begin the lengthy process of appealing U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa’s refusal to stop the project.
And the Gila Community on Friday filed its own request for an injunction that would halt construction work until the appeal is resolved.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District set Thursday as the first of several deadlines for parties on both sides to file their briefs. Briefs by ADOT and attorneys for the Federal Highway Administration won’t be due until mid-February.
The 9th Circuit earlier this month denied PARC’s request that construction be halted until it has ruled on their appeal.
Opponents argued that by the time the appellate court rules—possibly not before summer at the earliest—construction would cause “irreparable harm” to some of the things they’re trying to stop.
Among them is a cut through South Mountain, which Native Americans on the Gila Community consider sacred. ADOT said construction on that part of the 22-mile freeway is not expected to begin until sometime in 2018.
In its injunction request last Friday, the Gila Community focused strongly on the freeway construction’s impact on South Mountain and urged the panel to brush aside ADOT’s contention that any delay could cost tens of millions of dollars in extra costs for the project.
“The public interest favors protecting the Community’s traditional cultural resources, and the natural resources that belong to all of the region’s residents, from destruction that ultimately may prove unnecessary, rather than rushing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars with little known short-term benefit,” attorney Jeffrey Molinar said in a brief.
“To the extent that Agencies can prove any potential harm, the permanent damage that will be done to the Community when the freeway construction destroys portions of the sacred Mountain far outweighs any such injury,” he added.
Both the Gila Community and PARC claim that ADOT and the FHA performed faulty environmental studies that understated the health risks to residents as well as children attending 17 schools within a half mile of the freeway on the Ahwatukee end.
The $1.77-billion freeway is the most expensive highway project in Arizona history.
It will connect West Phoenix with the Chandler interchange, providing a detour for I-10 motorists around the heavily congested Downtown Phoenix right-of-way.
ADOT has contended the freeway will not only create a huge economic stimulus for areas along its path, but will also save motorists time and relieve air pollution in the vicinity of the Broadway Curve.
Opponents have questioned planners’ claims of an economic boon, and contend that their housing projections were based on outdated data.
The cut along the freeway’s western end was necessitated by the relocation of eight huge siphons that the Salt River Project will use to divert water beneath the I-10.
Now that the excavation has been completed, crews are placing a 42-inch concrete pipe inside a 60-inch steel casing underneath the South Mountain Freeway path.
Crews also will be improving the interchange and widening I-10 from 43rd to 75th avenues and adding two-mile-long access roads to improve traffic flow. The new access roads will be two lanes in each direction, providing potential relief to a consistently congested stretch of I-10.
For now, I-10 motorists in the West Valley are contending with lane restrictions in both directions while the siphon relocation continues, likely into early next year, ADOT said in its release.
The South Mountain Freeway is scheduled to open in late 2019 and has been on the drawing board for more than 30 years.
Some pre-construction work has been underway on the Ahwatukee end of the freeway’s path since September, when crews started relocating scores of cactus and other desert vegetation to a makeshift nursery on the edge of the Foothills Reserve HOA.
That work has included extending the Loop 202 Santan Freeway HOV lanes and widening the shoulders of Pecos Road near 48th Street.
That area also will undergo significant utility line relocation work, although it is not known when it will begin.