Editor’s note: This is part five of a continuing summer series on the proposed South Mountain Loop 202 Freeway. 

Local environmental groups have a laundry list of reasons why the South Mountain Freeway shouldn’t be built down Pecos Road and through the western edge of South Mountain.

“We’ve opposed the freeway for a pretty long time,” said Sandy Bahr of the local chapter if the Sierra Club. “It didn’t seem like a good idea in the last couple rounds of transportation planning and it seems like an even worse idea to us now.”

Among the list are effects on local traffic, possible mines in South Mountain, cultural effects to the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) and the amount of air pollution that added traffic in the area will bring. Several groups are working together to submit substantive comments during this 90-day comment period that they plan to use later in court to fight the freeway.

Cutting through the mountain

There has been constant uproar over the plan to cut through three western ridges of South Mountain. The area is free of any official hiking trails and only represents a small percentage of the entire park, but many believe the idea is still deplorable and would destroy a portion of the park that many hikers still enjoy. 

“The actual impacts of the freeway cutting through South Mountain Park, on the maps they make it seem like it’s not a big deal but when you’re talking about cutting acres off the corner of a park, that is a huge impact,” Bahr said. “It’s not just the direct impact of eliminating acres of the park, but it’s the fact that now you have a major freeway right next to one of the largest urban parks in the country. South Mountain Park is a focal point for many.”

The proposed plan calls for a 220-foot cut through one ridge, a 190-foot cut to another, and a 70-foot cut to a third. The freeway is expected to take 31.3 acres of the park, which is calculated to be 0.2 percent of the total park. As a stand-alone item the cuts are expected to cost $30 million, said Tim Tait of the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT).

The route through the mountain is the only one currently being considered by ADOT in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). Any alternative would require cooperation from the GRIC. To date, several resolutions have been passed by the GRIC to turn down the possibility of any freeway on their land. 

Affects on wildlife

According to the DEIS, there are no documented wildlife dispersal or migration routes in the portion of South Mountain Park that the freeway would cut through. ADOT met with Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) in 2003 to study the area and come up with some mitigation to any possible problems. While the DEIS states that there are no major routes of concern, ADOT does recognize that many animals may travel from South Mountain to the Estrella Mountains. That is why the plan calls for multifunctional crossing locations to go under portions of the freeway, as well as smaller animal crossings.

The DEIS does admit that noise during construction could be a problem for many species of birds and that the area is known to be a habitat for desert tortoises, which are not listed as “endangered” but are candidates for that protection.

“The best thing they could do for wildlife is not build it,” Bahr said. “That being said they could have and should have taken a deeper look at the impacts to desert tortoises, for example. They should have proposed mitigation, irrespective of whether or not the tortoises are listed right now as endangered. There should have been more efforts to ensure that the tortoises are not harmed and that additional habitats for tortoises is protected… These corridors are meant to be multi-use corridors. The more people you have using them the less wildlife will use them. I think that is something they didn’t really look at or carefully evaluate. If it’s heavily used by people it will not be used by wildlife. There’s some wildlife that just won’t use underpasses.”

Wendy Hodgson, a research botanist and herbarium curator at the Desert Botanical Garden, said the issue is the same with plant life in South Mountain. While the freeway may not directly destroy endangered species, it will fragment the habitat and create problems for the entire ecosystem.

“We don’t know a lot about habitat fragmentation as it relates to plants and animals but we can guess that it will impact, especially more specialized species of plants and animals,” she said. “From my standpoint as a biologist it’s more than looking at rare species. It’s looking at total ecosystems especially of Sonoran Desert species. If we continue to degrade that, that is very troublesome to me. The Sonoran Desert is unique to our region… We’re losing it. We’re continually fragmenting it. We have to be careful of that. It’s not an infinite resource.”

The DEIS states that even without a freeway urban development is coming quickly. Even if the freeway is not built the land may be taken over for human-related uses. Hodgson says that’s a cultural problem that everyone needs to work together on.

“Especially at a time when people are becoming further detracted away from nature and from this I think it’s really important to do all that we can to further connect people,” she said. “I think we need to do far more to encourage the connectiveness of people with their landscape.”

Arizona Game and Fish has stated that they plan to work closely with ADOT during the design phase of the project to ensure that species and habitats are protected. 

“ADOT has stated in their Draft Environmental Impact Statement that they will coordinate with AZGFD during the design phase regarding the potential for locating and designing wildlife-sensitive roadway structures (such as drainage structures, directional fencing or others) to provide for wildlife movement across the highway and help offset habitat fragmentation,” said Tom Cadden, public information officer for AZGFD. “We’ve worked with ADOT, the Federal Highway Administration and other partners on other highway projects to help reduce chances for vehicle-wildlife collisions while also providing for habitat connectivity and movement of wildlife across roadways. Some of the most notable projects of this nature are the underpasses and electric elk crossing on Highway 260 near Payson, and the bighorn sheep overpasses on Highway 93 near Hoover Dam.”

Dangerous trucks in a fragile area

Hodgson also raised concerns about the possibility of an increased fire risk in South Mountain. As more cars pass through a major thoroughfare, she said, there’s a greater chance of someone throwing a cigarette butt out of a window and causing problems. 

“Sonoran Deserts are not fire adapted,” Hodgson said. “When you have people using a major thoroughfare you’re going to increase the chance of anyone throwing a cigarette butt out. It’s going to increase the risk, whether it’s incidental. You’re also going to have species that will fill in empty spaces left by construction and those species help fuel local fires. There’s a number of factors, but when combined it will have an impact, and I fear a negative impact on that ecosystem.”

Many groups, like Ahwatukee-based Protecting Arizona’s Resources and Children (PARC), are more concerned about the possibility of truckers using the South Mountain Freeway as a Canamex route, to get trucks and whatever hazardous materials they may be carrying from Mexico or Canada through the U.S. as quickly as possible.

The DEIS does state in several areas that hazardous materials will be allowed on this freeway — though ADOT does not believe it will be used as the Canamex corridor. There is some mitigation planned in case of an emergency.

Drainage basins along the freeway will serve to contain any chemicals spilled, said Tait.

“Drainage basins would be designed to contain a certain rainfall run-off volume before allowing discharge,” he said. “If an accident were to occur, and the basins were dry at the time of the accident, the spill volume, in most cases, could be accommodated.”

Further noted in the DEIS, emergency responders will help address construction of the new freeway by amending the local emergency response plan to include the freeway if it is built. 

“This would include emergency response on the road and alternative routes for diversion of traffic in the event that a hazardous materials incident occurred along the roadway,” the DEIS states.

Steve Brittle, of Don’t Waste Arizona, has been helping PARC address some issues with the DEIS. This is one he is especially concentrated on. Brittle was on the local emergency response commission for years and has special knowledge of the laws regarding emergency planning. He said the law is specific about ways planners must mitigate these issues and while other freeways may not have as detailed of an emergency plan as he would like to see, this South Mountain Freeway is especially troubling if a full plan is not laid out.

“When you look at a place like Ahwatukee, world’s largest cul-de-sac, it would be very difficult to evacuate this area,” Brittle said. “If you’re looking at even a half-mile evacuation from the freeway that’s schools, homes, parks. A cloud of chlorine would be on them in five to 10 minutes… In any other part of the city you can drive in almost any direction to get away from a chemical spill. In Ahwatukee there’s no way out.”

Brittle said the law requires that planners look at ways of notifying people if there has been a chemical leak and if they find a problem they must mitigate it. He’s not pleased with the mitigation ADOT has proposed.

“You’d have to teach people, put shelters in all the parks, put sirens in the Ahwatukee area, have a ring-down system ready, have evacuation training in the schools, have a gas mask for every person in vulnerable facilities,” Brittle said. “The problem with this kind of process is unless someone raises these objections and raises hell about it, they just skate through… In this case if they create a problem they have to mitigate it. We’re going to hold them to that in court.”

Tait said the mitigation ADOT has proposed for this route is ADOT and the Federal Highway Administration’s “standard approach” for new roadways in Arizona.

“FHWA’s Guidance for Preparing and Processing Environmental and Section 4(f) Documents does not suggest development of a project-specific emergency response plan for proposed projects,” he said.

Is it really necessary?

The greatest argument coming from environmental groups is that the necessity for a freeway in this area isn’t there. The Sierra Club and PARC are not buying ADOT’s models that predict the freeway will help reduce regional air quality.

“The air toxins, I think we’ve seen, are already there,” said Pat Lawlis, president of PARC. “Many of them are very severe and I don’t think they were caused by traffic to begin with, but if we bring traffic into that same area we will just add on top of the toxins already in the area. Perhaps the thing those toxins show most clearly is how that geographical area is going to hold this problem and not disperse it. What we’re going to end up with is a place that’s not fit to live in.”

Experts at ADOT and the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) disagree. Their projections and plans for air quality include this freeway and they claim even with the new project they’ll be able to meet federal standards. 

To the Sierra Club of Arizona, the cost is too great. Their position is that this funding could be better spent repairing infrastructure that already exists and promoting different forms of transportation.

“We think a ‘No Build’ alternative should be the preferred alternative,” Bahr said. “It’s a hugely expensive freeway and that money could be better used. Ultimately, we think the route of the freeway is a bad route.”

ADOT has determined in the DEIS that there is a purpose and need for the freeway. They predict continued population growth, especially in the Laveen area, and worsening traffic congestion coming from the Ahwatukee area through the Broadway curve. This freeway could give commuters a different option to get downtown and the funding is ready to go once the project receives final approval, which could come as soon as 2014.

The DEIS is available for review and public comment through July 24 at southmountainfreeway.com.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-7914 or ahurtado@ahwatukee.com.

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