Moving portions of the planned Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway onto Gila River Indian Community land could shave up to $250 million off the project's estimated $1.9 billion price tag, according to Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio.
However, even though Indian community officials recently indicated a willingness to listen to such a proposal, it's unclear if they ultimately would be willing to accept it, said Tim Tait, Arizona Department of Transportation spokesman.
"There's a long way between here and there," Tait said.
The planned 22-mile freeway extension has been in the works since the mid-1980s. Right now, the proposal calls for extending Loop 202 west from Interstate 10 south along Pecos Road - which divides Ahwatukee Foothills from the Indian reservation - cutting through three ridges on the west side of South Mountain, and then shooting north to reconnect with I-10 near 59th Avenue on the west side of town.
"It clips a corner of the South Mountain Preserve," Tait said.
The proposal would require the demolition of more than 100 Ahwatukee homes, he said. The money to fund the project would come from a half-cent sales tax hike that voters approved in 2004, along with additional state and federal funds, he said.
The Gila River tribe historically has opposed any suggestion that the freeway's route be moved south of Pecos Road and onto reservation land. But in February, tribe leaders appeared to soften that stance, saying they would consider some alternatives, if state officials chose to submit them for review, Tait said.
ADOT is now working on a 60-page preliminary evaluation of two options, and expects to hand them over to tribe officials by the end of this month, he said.
"There are a couple of alternatives that are under discussion," Tait noted, although he declined to disclose the details.
DiCiccio, whose district includes Ahwatukee, said that during a meeting earlier this year involving local, state, federal and tribe officials, it was revealed that one option called for rerouting the freeway's proposed route around the west side of South Mountain and onto the Indian reservation. The move would eliminate the need to blast through three ridges while retaining the Pecos Road alignment, he said.
The change could save $250 million, DiCiccio said.
"They wouldn't have to worry about engineering through a mountain," he noted.
The second option calls for constructing a completely new roadway south of Pecos Road on Indian reservation land, DiCiccio said. The proposal also would skirt the roadway around the west side of South Mountain rather than going through it, he said.
That option could save about $200 million because of the cost of building a new roadway rather than using Pecos, DiCiccio said.
Tait said it's possible that rerouting the freeway could provide some savings, but other factors could offset those savings, such as the need to compensate the tribe for the use of its land.
"The overall cost may not be reduced," Tait said.
Also, tribe officials have not invited state transportation officials onto the reservation to survey any potential new routes, so it's unclear what challenges engineers might face, he said.
"It's largely a factor of what we find when we get out there. It's really difficult to say," Tait said.
He added that discussions with the tribe have not risen to the level of true negotiations. Tribe officials could reject the proposed alternatives entirely, or they could ask for a formal study, he said.
"We don't want to overstate what we're doing," Tait said.
In the meantime, state transportation officials are continuing to work on an environmental analysis of the original freeway route, which they hope to make the subject of public hearings in the first half of next year, he said. If that proposal goes forward, officials expect construction to begin by 2014 and take about five years to complete, he said.
"At this point we take that to still be in force," Tait said.
If the tribe agrees to study the two alternatives, it could push the project's timeframe slightly further into the future because of the need for additional environmental and engineering studies, he said.
"We're working on basically two parallel efforts right now," Tait said. "At some point, maybe they'll come together. We're keeping the door open as wide as possible."
Gila River Indian Community officials could not be reached for comment.