There may be a glimmer of hope to Councilman Sal DiCiccio’s attempts to find an alternative route for the South Mountain Loop 202 Freeway.
Last week officials from the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC), city of Phoenix, Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), congressional offices and others met to discuss the possibility of a proposal that would put the South Mountain Loop 202 Freeway south of Pecos Road.
One participant, Eric Anderson from the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG), called it a “good initial discussion.”
And in a letter sent to participants, Congressman Harry Mitchell said he was excited at the prospect of “substantial cost savings to taxpayers” if the freeway was diverted away from South Mountain.
Now, the ball is in the GRIC’s court.
“We need some guidance from the Gila River Indian Community on how to move forward,” Anderson said.
The problem is that twice the tribal council has passed resolutions opposing a freeway on tribal land, so it would be presumptive for ADOT to ask the tribe for permission to study alternatives.
“What part of no didn’t they understand,” was how one participant, who asked for anonymity, put it.
But after the Dec. 7 meeting, it appears that the tribe may be willing to entertain a proposal for an alternative route south of Pecos Road.
“It was encouraging on our part,” said Robbie Sherwood, Mitchell's district director in Arizona, although no details have been worked out and no agreement on any alternative has been reached.
“What we are waiting for is the tribal council to ask MAG and ADOT to come down and do a study,” Sherwood said.
There are no guarantees that anything will come from last week’s discussions, but the process will continue to move forward if the tribe writes to ADOT and gives permission for a study of possible routes. That could open the way for a formal proposal, which the tribe would probably put to a vote of its members.
Because no study of a route has been conducted on tribal land, it is unknown what the costs of an alternative would be. But one participant said that by not cutting through the ridges in South Mountain, as much as $250 million could be saved.
An alternative route could also add costs, especially if land swaps with the tribe involving federal land, or major changes to 51st Avenue that runs through a tribal community, are factored in.
But any net cost savings would be important because the cost of the Loop 202 has jumped from $1 billion to almost $2.4 billion. MAG, which has an estimated $6 billion shortfall in freeway construction funds, has recommended a scaled-down version of the freeway, from 10 lanes to eight lanes, to save money and bring the cost down to $1.9 billion.
Anderson said the possibility of an alternative to the old 1985 Pecos Road alignment won’t stop the current draft Environmental Impact Statement. But he did say that even if the EIS is approved and construction were to begin, changes could always be made if the Gila River Indian Community were to consider and approve a route that moves the freeway south.
He said that ADOT could even start construction in the west to give the tribe more time to consider an alternative route.
“This opens the door to looking at what a real alternative would cost and look like,” Sherwood said.