Gila River Indian Community Sues AZ Department of Transportation Over Proposed Highway Extension

The Gila River Indian Community is the latest group to sue the Arizona Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration over a planned extension of Loop 202, called the South Mountain Freeway pass. The lawsuit filed this week alleges that the two agencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Department of Transportation Act by “failing to consider adequately the significant harm the freeway would inflict on the environment and on historical and cultural resources.”

The proposed pass has been debated and planned since the mid-1980s but was only approved by the federal government earlier this year. It will connect the Southeast Valley and Southwest Valley by extending Loop 202 through part of the Ahwatukee Foothills, South Mountain Preserve, and Laveen area, eventually connecting to I-10 near 59th Avenue. The freeway “will significantly improve travel . . . and help reduce congestion on Interstate 10,” states an ADOT press release. “The freeway is also expected to promote economic development in the region.”

While voters in Maricopa County approved funding for the extension in 2004 — it’s expected to cost $1.9 billion — many in the community strongly oppose the project.

“The proposed freeway would destroy parts of three ridges of South Mountain and also would destroy or alter many trails, shrines, and archaeological sites that constitute significant cultural resources for the community and its members,” Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis states in a press release about the lawsuit. “South Mountain, or Muhadagi Doag, is one of the community’s most important and sacred natural resources. It is a prominent part of the community’s oral traditions and ceremonial activities, all of which are tied to the natural environment.”

He goes on to say that ADOT and FWA “ignored their obligations to avoid or mitigate harm to the environment and to the public health, safety, and welfare of its members." The 2013 draft Environmental Impact Statement for the highway, for instance, was not received well by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA wrote that the EIS “did not adequately assess and identify potential air-quality impacts from the new proposed freeway,” nor did it properly address issues of emissions, traffic data, construction and noise impacts, the Clean Water Act, and health effects. “The proposed South Mountain Freeway will place a high-volume roadway adjacent to hundreds of residences and several schools [and] will displace 680 multifamily residences and 165 single family residences . . . The proposed project raises a question regarding the number of remaining residences within close distance of the new highway [and] the potential health-related impacts to [them].”

The Gila River Indian Community is also alleging that the agencies “lacked authority to select the chosen route because that route trespasses over reservation land, specifically three wells held in trust for the benefit of the community by the United States.” (The EIS notes concerns it has about how seriously the agencies considered environmental justice and the impacts to sacred sites.)

As noted by the group Protecting Arizona’s Resources and Children, which has actively fought against the proposal for decades, there are viable alternatives that would achieve the same connectivity goals without cutting through part of the South Mountain Preserve and introducing air pollution into an already congested area. According to PARC, ADOT or FHA have not seriously considered any of these alternatives.

In mid-May of this year, PARC teamed up with eight other local groups and filed a lawsuit against ADOT and FHA. (The other groups included: the Arizona Chapter of the Sierra Club, Don’t Waste Arizona, Gila River Alliance for a Clean Environment, Phoenix Mountain Preservation Council, and community association groups from Calabrea, Lakewood, Foothills, and Foothills Club West.)

Their lawsuit charges that ADOT and FWA:

• Misused the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process trying to rationalize a decision made 30 years ago
• Provided inadequate and misleading information regarding traffic
• Provided inadequate and misleading information regarding air pollution
• Failed to adequately consider health impacts, particularly on children
• Failed to make a special effort to preserve the natural beauty of a public park
• Refused to consider impacts associated with transportation of hazardous materials
• Failed to adequately consider the impacts on ground water resources

While the Gila River Indian Community technically filed a separate lawsuit Tuesday, the tribe says it hopes to combine the suits and join the above-mentioned list of plaintiffs.

In a statement similar to the one released following news of the first lawsuit, ADOT responded to the Gila River Indian Community lawsuit by writing that while it has “not yet had an opportunity to review in detail the legal action filed against the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway, [ADOT and FHA] are confident that any legal challenges will find that the law was followed in coming to a decision to construct this long-planned freeway.”

Watch ADOT's video about the South Mountain Freeway:

Got a tip? Email Miriam Wasser
Follow Miriam Wasser on Twitter @MiriamWasser
Follow Valley Fever on Twitter @ValleyFeverPHX
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser