Carr Wrecks

Richard Carr, president of a firm that wants to build the $350 million South Mountain Toll Road, has extensive experience in "public-private partnerships." Unfortunately, most of those experiences have been bad.

Herman Snyder, South Carolina's chief highway engineer at the time, pleaded guilty to violating state ethics laws after accepting $2,000 from the Thrifts.

Joel Wilson, a state highway construction engineer, resigned in 1992 after investigators determined he had traveled to Las Vegas and Atlantic City with the Thrifts. Wilson repaid the Thrifts after being questioned by both the IRS and the FBI.

According to documents obtained by toll-road opponents, both Wilson and Snyder now figure prominently in Interwest's road-building team.

A November 30, 1995, document titled "Southern Connector Team Meeting Agenda" lists Wilson as a representative for Wilbur Smith & Associates, a Connecticut-based traffic-engineering firm. A September 13, 1995, agenda lists Snyder as the Wilbur Smith & Associates representative.

Wilbur Smith and more than a dozen other companies, including the Thrifts and Mesirow Financial, are partners in the Interwest Carolina Transportation Group, a limited liability company that acts as a legal umbrella for the consortium that hopes to build the Southern Connector. (Wilbur Smith has also signed on to conduct traffic studies for the South Mountain Toll Road.)

Dave Wettland, who leads the citizens' group opposed to the road, is under no illusion about his chances of success. "We're just the little group that has to pass the hat every time we meet," he says. "We're not gonna win."

So why did he get involved?
"Basically, I looked at the road and saw who was gonna benefit from it, and I realized this wasn't for the people at all, like they said it was, and it made me mad," Wettland says. "It's a developer's driveway, plain and simple. If the road goes through, all those developers who bought land out there in the middle of nowhere in anticipation of this are gonna suddenly find themselves holding onto $88,000-an-acre prime industrial land."

In Minnesota, an Interwest proposal to build a toll road has won the blessing of state highway officials. But only two of the three communities through which the $220 million road would pass supported it at the polls. Interwest is mounting a legal challenge of the holdout community's vote.

Like their counterparts in South Carolina, Minnesota transportation officials seem unconcerned by what happened in Apache Junction.

"We've been trying to get this road built for 30 years," says Adeel Lari, who heads Minnesota's office of alternative transportation financing. "If we do it this way, there will be no liability to the state, or any other public association. The whole risk is born by the people who buy the bonds."

Lari is not alarmed by the reports from Apache Junction.
"I'm not saying Interwest didn't sell it [the sewer project] aggressively," Lari says. "But Allstate, those are big boys. Why didn't they do the due diligence?

"I always find that the people who buy the bonds are looking for someone to blame."

Toll roads are a hot topic in Arizona. Last week, ADOT officials gave their blessing to a plan by MetroRoad, another road-building consortium, to construct high-speed express lanes on five existing Valley freeways. Users would pay a $50 monthly toll. MetroRoad also proposes to build the Santan Freeway across Chandler and Gilbert and up to the Superstition Freeway.

ADOT officials remain circumspect in their assessment of the Interwest proposal.

"Naturally, in light of what happened in Apache Junction, we'll be studying it very closely," says ADOT spokesman William Rawson.

Interwest has already set up the South Mountain Community Highway Association, the nonprofit group that would theoretically own the road.

In its proposal to ADOT, Interwest billed the association as "a group of dedicated and concerned citizens" who believe in the need for a toll road. The association shares an address with Interwest.

While ADOT mulls the proposal, many with a vested interest in the South Mountain Toll Road--including the Gila River Indian Community--will be holding their breath.

ADOT's original plan for the road, developed in the 1960s, consisted of one alignment, near Pecos Road. That alignment would have cut through several hills in the southwestern tip of South Mountain Park. The excavation work, which drew fire from park preservationists, would have added at least $30 million to the project's overall budget.

When ADOT floated the toll-road project in 1994, its requests for proposals only included the Pecos Road alignment. In September 1995, after two proposals fell through, Gila River Indian Community Governor Mary V. Thomas asked ADOT to consider moving the road south and onto Indian lands.

"On behalf of the Gila River Indian Community, I would like to extend this invitation to the State of Arizona . . . to explore the potential for developing the South Mountain Freeway as a toll facility on our community's lands," Thomas wrote.

A reservation alignment has immense appeal to park preservationists and Ahwatukee neighborhood activists.

"It seems like a win-win situation all the way around," says preservationist Dave Gironda, who fought ADOT in 1994 over its plan to move mountains.

And what would the Gila River Indian Community stand to gain?
Officials with the community did not return numerous phone calls seeking comment. But government officials familiar with the deal say they believe the community would consider building a massive golf and gambling mecca if the road goes through. The same officials said the toll road could also be an impetus for building a domed stadium.

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