The Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) has spoken once again to not allow any freeway on tribal land. Now, the question is whether or not the Loop 202 extension will continue on the Pecos Road alignment.
Unofficial results from the Gila River Indian Community's vote on Feb. 7 show 603 voted for the freeway on the GRIC, 158 voted for it off the GRIC, and 720 voted for no freeway at all.
"There's been a great deal of passion on both sides of this issue, from those who advocated for the economics of building this freeway to those who worried it would harm South Mountain and the environment," Gila River Gov. Gregory Mendoza said in a statement. "Tonight, we have a clear direction from the Community; our voters don't want to see this freeway built - not on tribal land or off tribal land."
While the vote does eliminate the chance of the Loop 202 being built on tribal land, it does not guarantee that the freeway won't be built at all. The Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) will continue with Environmental Impact Studies (EIS) on the Pecos Road alignment. Once the draft of that study comes out it will be open for public review and comment. Once corrections are made to the study a final EIS will be released for public comment. The final EIS must be approved by the Federal Highway Administration before plans can begin for construction.
"There is still a no-build option in play," said Bob Hazlette, senior engineer for the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG). "What's important there is deciding if it meets the purpose and need of the corridor, and a lot of times no builds don't."
Hazlette said public comments could effect the no-build option if residents know some facts about the land that ADOT and MAG do not.
"The key to the no build is, does the no build meet the purpose and need of the corridor," Hazlette said. "The purpose and need of the corridor is pretty pronounced in terms of being able to provide that flexibility of being able to get between the Southeast Valley and the Southwest Valley to provide some relief to surface arterial streets such as Baseline Road and Southern Avenue, and to provide some relief to Interstate 10. It would also provide a very critical link to the whole system of the regional freeway system. There may be some other facts that we are unaware of so it'll be important for the public to bring that up."
The public may also have a chance to stop the freeway from being built if litigation is brought up after the EIS is released. Stephen Brittle of Don't Waste Arizona says from reports and studies he's seen, that litigation is almost certain. In fact, they already have an attorney chosen to represent them and that attorney is an Ahwatukee Foothills resident.
"We have conducted litigation on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)," Brittle said. "We have won in court before every time. I'm pretty familiar with the requirements and they have never met them. They're going to have problems in court if and when we get there."
Brittle said part of the NEPA process is study of air pollution impacts, permanent culture changes for GRIC, study of wells and water washes. He believes once those are truly studied the results will be shocking.
"They used to tell us they didn't have a choice, this was planned so many years ago, and then they realized we'd be waiting with a club in the court room, so they moved to the Indian community thinking this opposition would not appear there and there'd be no lawsuit," Brittle said. "But this is a real problem. We're right back where we started from and I can guarantee if they try to build it in Ahwatukee it isn't going to happen, especially once the pollution problem comes out."
Others are not so confident that fighting the freeway is still an option. Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio said he's uncertain what can be done now that the freeway will not go on tribal land.
"I don't know what else they can do at this point," DiCiccio said. "It's too early to say anything. I wasn't planning on a plan B. I was planning on this going through. I've never been a fan of the freeway. I don't think it's a benefit to our area at all, but I have no control over the freeway. What we were able to do was use the bully pulpit to get the tribe and the state to work together. We can all make individual statements, but it doesn't mean anything will come of it."
GRIC Councilman Devin Redbird was working with a group of about 20 GRIC residents to teach people in his community the benefits of a yes vote. He said his group will continue to fight.
"‘No build' is not an option since the Arizona Department of Transportation already has acquired right of way in Ahwatukee to build the freeway," Redbird said in a statement. "We will immediately pursue tribal legal action as well as bring this unconstitutional measure to the attention of the Pima Agency for a final determination due to non compliance against tonight's vote and organize an initiative to shortly propose to our tribal members an up or down vote on building the freeway on tribal land.
"Such a vote will save our sacred South Mountain, allow us to best protect our sovereignty and destiny and ensure self determination and economic opportunity for our people. In many ways tonight was like a primary election. Now it is time for the general election with narrowed choices. Our cause goes on, and continues immediately."
Those in GRIC District 6 who fought for the no-build option on the ballot plan to continue fighting, as well. Michael Tashquinth said they know the sacredness of the mountain and they are not ready to see it destroyed.
The results of the vote for "no build" could lead to a quickened pace for the Pecos Road alignment, but if those fighting the issue have their way it will be at least another decade before any final decision is made.
"When the draft comes out it should bring an uproar and that gives us time to plan, and raise money, and prepare for court," Brittle said. "We're ready to win. I'm undefeated in federal court and I don't intend to ruin my record."
The draft EIS is estimated to come out sometime this summer.
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