ROADS TO RUIN

IF PROPOSITION 400 PASSES, TAXPAYERS WILL COUGH UP BILLIONS FOR FREEWAY CONSTRUCTION. IF ONLY MAG ADOT KNEW WHERE THEY WERE GOING TO SPEND IT.

Jane White's house is a noisy place, and not just because of the cars zipping past on the new, improved Pima Road, barely 50 feet from her front door. The phone rings constantly, and the caller is usually somebody with something to tell her about freeways, or about meetings about freeways, or about a memo that came from a meeting about freeways. Her kitchen table is covered with maps of freeways, and design plans for freeways, and thick budgets for freeways.

A bookshelf in the corner of her living room holds bound volumes filled with nearly every newspaper story written about Maricopa County freeways since 1986.

This morning, she is talking about freeways between pulls on a Benson & Hedges 100. She has been scrapping about freeways with state and local leaders for ten years, and the past few months have left her busier and more upset than ever. She is dedicated to killing Proposition 400, the freeway-funding plan on the November election ballot.

If approved, the proposition would extend the current half-cent freeway sales tax for ten years past its scheduled end in 2006, and create an additional half-cent tax for the next 20 years. Half of the revenues will be earmarked for freeway construction, and the other half for transit-system improvements. The total value of the freeway package is expected to be $5.6 billion.

Some people are broken records, and some others are dictionaries. White sounds like a broken recording of a dictionary when she talks on the subject of freeways. And although she may be less than impartial in that regard, few people--even people who doubtless wish she'd find some other hobby--would argue that she has anything less than a formidable collection of facts.

By her lights, one "fact" overrides all others: The organizations that launched the Titanic of local government boondoggles--the 1985 freeway plan--are poised to do the same thing again.

"People call me antifreeway, but I'm not. I'm antibureaucratic incompetence," she says.

Relatively few people would consider White's freeway fixation to be normal. Normal people throw up their arms and complain about taxes and traffic jams, but they don't fill their houses with planning documents. They don't sit through public policy meetings that would put a turtle's feet to sleep.

It must also be said that the arguments of many in the antifreeway crowd are not entirely logical. The failure of the 1985 freeway plan does not necessarily, automatically mean that new proposals to build highways will be economic disasters. Even governments occasionally learn from mistakes.

And the government claims it has gone to great lengths to avoid a rerun of the 1985 fiasco.

But research shows that White's concerns cannot be dismissed lightly.
A review of records from the two entities charged with building Maricopa County freeways--the Maricopa Association of Governments and the Arizona Department of Transportation--reveals that plans for completion of the freeway system are not nearly as well-developed as officialdom would have voters believe.

In fact, MAG and ADOT records show that plans for funding, building and buying property for the proposed freeway system are vague at best, inadequate in some cases and nonexistent in others.

And vague, inadequate planning is what gave Maricopa County its current patchwork of incomplete freeways to nowhere, at prices hundreds of millions of dollars higher than estimated in 1985.

This is the history most everyone agrees upon: As late as a dozen years ago, Maricopa County residents were insisting that they didn't want freeways. In fact, voters had killed every freeway initiative presented to them over 25 years. But the county kept growing, its population doubling between 1970 and 1985. By then, trying to get across town using only surface streets made a freeway trip across L.A. look like a day at Venice Beach. Enter ADOT and MAG, and their master plan for valley commuters. Just a half-cent sales-tax levy for 20 years, they said in 1985, would give the voters and drivers of Maricopa County the 231-mile freeway system of their dreams. Playing against type, Valley voters, by a three-to-one margin, agreed to tax themselves.

Work on the most ambitious and expensive metropolitan freeway project in history was set to begin.

MAG and ADOT never came close to completing the system. In fact, just a bit more than 10 percent of it has been built, and what was constructed often connected with nothing, and led to nowhere.

Like the bridges east of Pima Road. Six of them shimmer like mirages, tantalizing gridlocked Scottsdale commuters with the promise of a north-south freeway yet to come. Construction on the bridges started in 1991, after a protracted right-of-way struggle between ADOT and the City of Scottsdale.

The original alignment would have laid the Pima Freeway right on top of Pima Road, winding back and forth between Scottsdale and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, and would have meant the razing of at least several dozen Scottsdale homes. Scottsdale fiercely resisted the plan for years, ultimately threatening a lawsuit.

ADOT relented, and set about making the deal with the Indians that put the bridges on the reservation. The freeway connecting the bridges, according to MAG's original plan, was to have been completed in 1995.

Now the association says it should be built by 2006.
For the time being, however, what you see is what you get, and what you see are bridges--lovely, tall, graceful-looking structures with lots of decorative concrete touches, and no road to connect them. Native American designs are inlaid in the side banks. The concrete surface on top is smooth and white, seeming to beg to be driven on.

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