Editor’s Note: This is the first in an occasional series outlining some of the issues surrounding construction of the South Mountain Loop 202, from Interstate 10 in Ahwatukee Foothills, west through South Mountain Park and then north to reconnect with I-10.
Opponents of the South Mountain Loop 202 say air pollution created by the proposed eight-lane freeway could have adverse effects on the health of nearby residents and school children, and a study published in January just may bolster their position.
The study, released by the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit corporation based in Massachusetts, which specializes in air pollution research, reviewed more than 700 worldwide studies of vehicle emissions and found that areas most affected by traffic-related pollution are within 500 meters of the pollution’s source.
At least three schools – Kyrene de los Lagos Elementary, Kyrene de la Estrella Elementary and Akimel A-al Middle schools – and several neighborhoods in Ahwatukee Foothills are within the 500-meter range of Pecos Road, the proposed route for the Loop 202.
Freeway traffic creates a mixture of engine exhaust and dirt that is sent aloft by vehicles moving at high speeds to produce two types of air pollution. Particulate matter is classified according to its diameter. PM10, for example, is 10 micrometers or less in diameter and is considered coarse compared to smaller particles like PM2.5.
Humans have an effective natural defense against larger particles that are inhaled accidentally. Coughing expels them. Particles such as PM2.5, however, enter the lungs undetected, can accumulate deep in the tissue and enter the bloodstream, according to experts.
“The deadliest form of pollution is particle pollution,” said Stacey Mortenson, executive director of the Arizona Lung Association. “The smaller particulate matter is 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair.”
These particles can trigger asthma attacks and lead to a host of other respiratory problems, the HEI study said.
Children are especially vulnerable to this pollution because their higher rates of metabolism result in more rapid breathing during physical activity, Mortenson said.
A 2008 study of Maricopa County by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and Arizona State University found a correlation between elevated amounts of particle pollution and asthma-related absences at nearby schools.
For the benefit of their students and staff, some Valley schools have begun raising color-coded flags that signify the amount of pollution in the air. On particularly smoggy days when red or orange flags are unfurled, asthmatic students may be encouraged to stay inside during recess.
“It’s very bad to have freeways by schools,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Arizona chapter. “Kids living near freeways have increased respiratory problems, especially if it’s a freeway where there will be a lot of diesel trucks.”
Proponents of the Loop 202 argue that it will ultimately alleviate pollution by reducing congestion on roads where stop-and-go traffic has proven to be the greatest contributor of PM10 pollution.
Critics respond that by drawing commuters from outside of Ahwatukee Foothills and limiting routes for local drivers, the Loop 202 will promote more congestion, not less.
“It really hasn’t been borne out with any of the other freeways,” Bahr said. “We keep going down the same roads so to speak. We create a lot of sprawl where everyone feels like they have to get in their car to do anything.”
Critics also argue that the agencies in charge of the freeway’s planning and construction – the Arizona Department of Transportation and the Maricopa Association of Governments – have failed to consider alternate transit methods that are friendlier to the environment.
“MAG will say that people have always built freeways near schools,” said Pat Lawlis, president of Protect Arizona’s Resources and Children. “If they really want regional transportation to be the goal, why wouldn’t they consider alternatives like light rail?”
Representatives for the Arizona Department of Transportation could not be reached for comment.
Laurel Arndt, a faculty associate at ASU’s School of Geographic Sciences and Urban Planning and a former member of the South Mountain Citizens Advisory Team, says that the formative stages of planning for the freeway have resulted in a rigid and decidedly auto-centric system.
“Phoenix is automobile dependent,” Arndt said. “But are we looking at connecting people or are we just looking at connecting cars? The scope of the project is very limited and when you make it that narrow you’re going to end up with a freeway.”
Several delays have postponed the construction of the Loop 202 since the project was conceived in the early 1980s. ADOT is now dealing with a freeway budget deficit of $6.6 billion, and while ADOT spokesman Tim Tait has said enough funding is available to begin construction of the Loop by 2013, the project remains at the mercy of unforeseen financial setbacks.
On Jan. 28, the Gila River Indian Community invited members of ADOT to study an alternative route for the Loop 202 on reservation land. The alternate route could move the loop south of Pecos Road and resolve some of the problems related to air pollution for residents of Ahwatukee Foothills, but ADOT has made no formal commitment to changing the existing route and representatives of the Gila River tribe maintain their preference to forgo the project altogether.
Ahwatukee Foothills resident Robert Oppermann is interning this semester for the Ahwatukee Foothills News. He is a senior at Michigan State University and can be reached at email@example.com.