The South Mountain Freeway will have its first birthday in a few weeks, marking a year since all but one interchange on the 22-mile highway opened and connected the 59th Street and Chandler interchanges on I-10.
But that anniversary also marks yet another year of misery that Beth Lauffer Gagnon and some of her Ahwatukee neighbors have endured well before any bulldozer dug into the ground as construction for the $1.7 billion project began in the fall of 2016.
Even as recently as last month, dust billowed behind her and her neighbors’ homes on East Redwood Court, where the sound wall and newly opened 32nd Street interchange are less than a stone’s throw from their backwall.
Gagnon wasn’t sure what crews were doing then, but in some ways, it didn’t matter.
The crew had not tamped down the dirt with water, as required by county air quality regulations.
“I stood there at the top of the wall standing up on my waterfall to my pool and was yelling at them until a guy finally came over and I told him to get a water truck or you stop working right now,” Gagnon recalled. “At that point, I’d already called county air quality with the complaint and he said, ‘Well, I have to talk to my boss.’”
It was another moment of frustration in 14 years of frustrations for Gagnon.
The freeway became a nightmare for Gagnon well before the court fights, the incessant noise and the concrete-cracking rumble of construction vehicles.
When she bought her home in 1997 shortly after she retired from the U.S. Army, the freeway had long been a shimmering gleam in the eye of county and state highway planners since 1983 – when they began talking about the “Southwest Loop Highway” and a second route between the east and west halves of the county.
In the fall of 2006, Gagnon and her neighbors received a noticed from ADOT that their homes were in the freeway path and would likely by bought by the state.
“We were given a pamphlet really, given a forum briefing explaining that they would pay our moving expenses,” she recalled. “I didn’t know where I was going to go, being a single mom with a daughter in school.
“It was like: ‘Good grief. Not only do I have to find a place convenient for my job, but she’s going to have change schools.’ But that was something we had to face.”
But by 2007, the Valley’s housing market had turned red hot as home prices soared.
Suddenly, Gagnon said, ADOT told her and other homeowners it wasn’t going to buy any more houses for a while because officials wanted to do another study.
Gagnon said she told an ADOT representative, “‘You’re putting a hardship on me with my job, with my life in general because being a single mom and low-income, I gotta think a lot about where I’m living and everything and I need you to make a decision so that I can get on with my life. You need to just go ahead and buy my house so that I can do that.’”
Gagnon twisted in the wind for years, holding out hope that her home would be taken by ADOT as the agency fine-tuned the freeway alignment and simultaneously fought two major federal lawsuits aimed at stopping the freeway in its tracks.
But as time wore on, it became clear that ADOT wouldn’t need to condemn her house or a number of others in her neighborhood. Instead, it would be building the freeway no more than six feet from her backyard wall.
When construction began in 2016, ADOT had bowed to what it called a citizen advisory panel that didn’t want an interchange at 32nd Street. It reversed that decision a couple years ago, citing a general demand in the community for it.
But it didn’t matter for Gagnon, because the nearly round-the-clock construction had started taking its toll well before the agency announced it would add the interchange after the freeway was opened.
“It’s been pretty much solid for the last five years. It’s been hell – 24/7 work with bright lights shining in my bedroom windows, the noise and shaking,” Gagnon said.
“I’ve got damage in my home. My pool was cracked and damaged. There’s cracks all through my patio and worse. They denied that they caused anything.”
“I filed claims and it took them several years after me filing a claim that I finally heard anything from them,” she said, adding that the agency sent a pool construction-repair company to inspect the damage.
She recalled she eventually was told that construction work could not possibly have damaged her pool, patio, ceiling and walls because she was not near the blasting zone.
“I said, ‘Well, that’s great because I never claimed that I was near the blasting zone,” she said, arguing that the heavy-duty construction vehicles that rolled along the freeway path caused significant vibrations that caused the cracking.
“I’ve taken videos where things are literally moving on my shelves and on my walls … That’s how violently it shakes the house. But yet they claimed that’s acceptable and that ‘it wouldn’t have caused the cracks you have in your ceiling, cracks you have in your pool or the cracks you have in your patio.’”
Once the freeway opened, the noise from traffic didn’t replace all the construction noise Gagnon endured for nearly three years.
It augmented it because not long after the freeway was completed, work started on the 32nd Street Interchange.
Moreover, trucks still rumble along a service road right behind her home, kicking up clouds of dust and shaking her property and those of her neighbors.
Many nights when the interchange construction was still going on, crews would be working through the night, she said, pouring bright light into her home and causing incessant noise that made it hard to sleep.
These days, when she’s not battling over trucks kicking up dirt, Gagnon has other worries as well.
She fears the ease an intruder would have climbing over her backyard wall for two reasons.
So much dirt has piled up in the 6-foot-wide service road between her property and the freeway sound barrier that what was once her 6-foot back wall is probably only 4 feet high. Crews have installed a chain link fence that makes it even easier for someone to climb over her wall and into the backyard.
She has asthma and already has lost a dog that also suffered from asthma that became lethal as a result of construction dust.
“I’ve got another dog and, granted, she’s the older one, but she’s started the whole hacking thing now too,” Gagnon said.
Now that the interchange has opened, Gagnon plans to resubmit claims for all the damage she says her home, patio and pool have sustained over the years.
How long she will be waiting is anyone’s guess.
“I’m just waiting to see if I hear anything back from them.”
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