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

Schools, businesses and church leaders are all anxious to know the outcome of the South Mountain Freeway. All of the development along Pecos Road happened after the freeway was first proposed, but now years later they’re faced with questions about how to deal with the freeway when it becomes a reality.

Schools staying neutral

The closest school to the South Mountain Freeway Pecos Alignment is Kyrene de los Lagos Elementary but nine other schools would be within a few miles of the proposed route.

Officials from Tempe Union and Kyrene school districts say their biggest concerns are air pollution near the schools and how construction will affect kids getting to and from school. Neither district’s school boards have taken an official position on the freeway.

“At this time, we do not have sufficient information from ADOT to comment any further,” said Dr. Kenneth Baca, Tempe Union High School District superintendent. “We will be reaching out to them and look forward to the time when we can offer our input as to the expansion’s impact on the schools in Tempe Union, particularly Desert Vista High School.”

There is currently access to Desert Vista High School off 32nd Street, but the freeway will have no exit at 32nd Street. That decision was made to save more homes from being taken for right of way.

In the Kyrene School District Lagos was built in 1986, before an official route of the freeway was really mapped out, district officials said. Akimel was built in 1992. The district does realize there are pros and cons to building or not building the freeway.

“During the construction period it will be very difficult for us,” said Jeremy Calles, Kyrene CFO and member of the South Mountain Citizens Advisory Team (SMCAT). “They want to bring Pecos down to one lane both ways while they’re building the freeway. That will back up traffic on Pecos and make it very difficult for us. We’re going to have to look at how that will affect our route times. They may have to pick up students earlier and have them be on the bus longer to get them to school on time… We also know there have been some accidents recently on (Interstate) 10. When those accidents occurred that traffic spilled over all the way back to our schools. Looking at the Valley as a whole it’s obvious they need to do something to help alleviate some of the burden on I-10.”

Calles said he will be making a presentation to the governing board to get its input on what the district’s position should be. The Kyrene School District will vote as part of the SMCAT.

Toxins near schools

It’s unclear how schools might be affected by air pollution from the freeway.

The SMCAT was given information about a U.S. 95 Mobile Source Air Toxics Study done by Sonoma Technology on behalf of the Nevada Department of Transportation. That study sought to examine the impact of near-road air pollution at schools before and after a freeway-widening project in Las Vegas.

That study showed that diesel particulate matter concentrations or black carbon was higher near the road and decreased with distance. The concentrations of pollutants were also higher during peak traffic hours. New filtration systems inside the schools helped.

Paul Roberts, who helped conduct the study, said the filtration systems were built into newer and older schools alike and that the cost was fairly reasonable. That’s something Calles said Kyrene will have to explore.

“Although what they propose looks like it will reduce air pollution overall in the Phoenix area, it still looks like it will increase pollution for the Ahwatukee area — not to levels where it will make them incompliant with federal regulations, but there will still be an uptick in the Ahwatukee area,” Calles said. “We’re looking at our systems and seeing if there are additional things we need to do to make our facilities handle the increase in pollution.”

Roberts pointed out during an SMCAT panel discussion that the actual health risk association with black carbon is not something the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has quantified, which is something the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) points out when addressing the study. 

Mountain Park Community Church

Mountain Park Community Church has been stuck in limbo over the years as the freeway has been debated. Church leaders aren’t looking into new filtration systems like the schools, but are trying to find a new location altogether. The problem is that there is no comparable land available, especially in Ahwatukee.

“We are by no means sitting here angry,” said Pastor Allan Fuller of Mountain Park Community Church. “There’s none of that. The state has the right to make decisions it needs to make.”

The land for the church, 12 acres, was purchased around 1996 when the South Mountain Freeway was unfunded and Mountain Park Community Church was quickly outgrowing its meeting location at Mountain Pointe High School. They built their 36,000-square-foot building with a complete knowledge that some day the state might pick the issue back up and that the church may be in the right of way.

Fuller said over the years interest in the project has come in waves and communication with the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) has been on and off. There’s been mention and talk of ADOT providing alternative land for the church to move to but nothing has been comparable, from the church’s point of view. The church designed its building around the land it is currently on with paths along the desert and views of the mountain. Land like that is not available any more.

“We love where we are,” Fuller said. “We love the visibility. We love being at the center of Ahwatukee. The architecture of the building was designed around this mountain... It’s part of our story.”

The church is stuck in limbo because it is still growing. The issue they face now is whether to expand the current building — there are plans for a larger auditorium, new offices and new student facilities if the church is able to stay — or to focus all efforts on finding a new meeting place. Even if ADOT were to offer the church market value for its facility, it would not be the same as replacement value, Fuller said. A replacement building is not available and the church cannot downsize.

“What we have always appreciated is that the church is a little different from the housing issues along Pecos,” Fuller said. “ADOT has wonderfully respected our dilemma in that we need a lot more time than you do with homes. We will need a period of at least two years to make a change. ADOT has been trying to keep us informed as early as possible.”

Tim Tait, spokesman for ADOT said ADOT made a written offer to purchase Mountain Park Community Church (MPCC) on March 30, 2010.

“The offer was for purchase of all land and improvements,” Tait said. “The MPCC was advised that although it was anticipated that the proceeds of ADOT’s purchase amount would be used by them to acquire a replacement property and construct of a new church, additional relocation benefits could be available to assist them in this process. ADOT also noted that it owns a comparably sized vacant parcel in the vicinity of the MPCC that might be available as a replacement property in a land exchange with MPCC. Due to uncertainty regarding final alignment of the South Mountain Freeway negotiations with the MPCC were suspended.”

Businesses in proposed route

The DEIS says nine businesses will be displaced by the Pecos Road alignment of the freeway: one in construction; two classified as “other services;” one in professional, scientific, and technical services; one in transportation and warehousing; and four that are unclassified. Tait said ADOT believes those businesses may be based out of residences or home offices. The information on those businesses is from the Maricopa Association of Governments Business Database. Aerial photography shows no business displacements along the E1 Alternative.

The only business that can clearly be seen from Pecos Road is Pecos Storage — but that business is on Gila River Indian Community land and will not be displaced by the freeway.

Rande Leonard, owner of Pecos Storage, said he has some concerns about how accessibility to his business will be affected. There will be no freeway exit at 32nd Street where Pecos Storage is located.

“Legally, ADOT has a responsibility to provide access to anybody that currently has access off Pecos Road,” Leonard said. “How that is accomplished, we don’t know. Quite honestly we haven’t had any discussions with ADOT because everything goes one month to the next with the confusion about the possibility of it being on the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) land or Pecos. All we can do is operate with conjecture.”

Leonard said if the freeway does go down Pecos, ADOT must create a bridge over 32nd Street and a bridge may be too close to power lines that are part of the critical infrastructure of the city. ADOT may also need to provide access off GRIC land, but that would require discussions with landowners to build out the road from 40th Street. Discussions like that need to go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and can be time consuming.

“Nobody knows what to say,” Leonard said. “The whole issue has been drug out so long. If they cannot provide me access they have to buy the business out. They’ve got to total up their costs. A simple bridge doesn’t provide me with the access I currently have. A bridge, plus a road on the reservation — by the time you do that costs could escalate.”

Leonard said he began discussions with GRIC in 2000 and signed a 35-year lease in 2004. Pecos Storage has more than 27 acres. Leonard said a typical boat and RV storage facility has two or three acres.

The DEIS says in general the freeway would benefit nearby businesses by creating better access from the freeway and visibility. It says access would always be provided during construction and that it would benefit regional business by improving regional traffic conditions.

“Although displacement could be an adverse impact on a business, it would not necessarily be an adverse impact on the economy,” the DEIS says. “Assuming demand persists for these types of services provided by displaced businesses, activity should continue at new locations, especially when reasonably near existing locations. Because of the size of the Phoenix regional economy and because of the availability of business sites nearby, business displacements should be able to be reasonably mitigated and the regional economy unaffected.”

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

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