About a month after a federal judge rejected a preliminary injunction intended to prevent the Arizona Department of Transportation from razing 200-plus properties to make way for the South Mountain Freeway, the initial demolition is set to begin this week.
While some are celebrating, others are livid about it — in fact, ever since this massive infrastructure project was proposed in the mid-1980s, it's been controversial and fraught with tension.
The eight-lane highway will connect the Southeast Valley and Southwest Valley by extending Loop 202 through part of the Ahwatukee Foothills, South Mountain Preserve, and Laveen area, and then connect with Interstate 10 near 59th Avenue. In total, it's expected to cost $1.9 billion, but depending on whom you talk to, costs may or may not outweigh benefits.
Supporters say it would improve travel and the transportation of goods, thereby providing a big boon to the economy — the Arizona Department of Transportation estimates that 117,000 to 190,000 vehicles will use the South Mountain Freeway every day by 2035 — but those opposing the project call it a waste of taxpayer dollars and say it will wreck havoc on air quality, nature preserves, and quality of life for those currently living on or near its path.
Of particular issue is the path the highway will take. ADOT flirted with various routes over the years, but eventually settled on the one it deems to be “the most feasible and prudent," despite the fact that it cuts through a small corner of the South Mountain Preserve, a sacred area for the Gila River Indian Community.
Furious over the proposed route and allegedly flawed environmental impact statement, the Gila and the local advocacy group that's been fighting the highway for decades, Protecting Arizona’s Resources and Children, earlier this year teamed up with environmental groups and filed a lawsuit against ADOT and the Federal Highway Administration. The groups argue that the agencies broke federal law by both misusing the National Environmental Policy Act, and by “providing inadequate and misleading information regarding” traffic, air pollution, human health, water resources, and damage to the public park.
The lawsuit still is in the early stages, but just last month, the presiding judge rejected a preliminary injunction, which cleared the way for ADOT to literally begin clearing the way for the road.
“The Court’s action allows ADOT to keep the project on schedule and to continue with the many steps of the pre-construction process that need to be completed prior to construction on this long-planned freeway project,” ADOT spokesman Dustin Krugel wrote to New Times in an e-mail.
But as PARC notes in a recent press release, "ADOT’s destruction of homes in Ahwatukee is both premature and an irresponsible waste of taxpayer dollars. ADOT is trying to demoralize and bully residents into believing that the South Mountain Freeway is a 'done deal.' Instead, it is proving its poor judgment and disregard for its obligations to taxpayers. ADOT has owned properties along the proposed freeway's route for decades and has merely rented them out, so demolition is not the only option even today.
"ADOT is also devaluing these properties, and when PARC wins the lawsuit, ADOT will be forced to sell these holdings at a substantial loss to the taxpayer. These are completely irresponsible fiscal actions by an agency of our state government at a time of budget shortfalls."
ADOT has been acquiring properties along the proposed route for 20 years but has accelerated the buying process since late March. In total, there are about 400 properties that need to be bought and cleared for the South Mountain Freeway, half of which are residential homes.
According to information provided by ADOT, the “agency's property-acquisition program includes working as early as possible with property owners and providing benefits to the extent allowed by law to cover actual, reasonable moving costs and related expenses” and it will pay market value for any acquired property and provide relocation assistance.
Most of the properties needed to clear a path for highway construction already have been identified, and offers either have been accepted or proposed, Krugel says. “However, there are still a limited number of properties ADOT is currently getting appraisals on before submitting an offer.”
He adds that “215 acquisition offers have been presented for a total of $198,219,726 [and] of these, 134 parcels have accepted offers; 107 parcels have closed escrow for a total of $32,082,965; and 27 parcels are in escrow for a total of $28,796,700.” Another $12.9 million has been paid in relocation benefits.
Pat Lawlis, president of PARC and a vocal critic of the project, says ADOT is “just throwing money around to keep the public happy.” She calls it “highway robbery” and says the agency's biggest concern right now is probably its public image.
ADOT is going to tear down homes in the middle of residential areas and build a massive highway near public schools and through once-thriving neighborhoods, she says, and many — herself included — are raising a stink about it. She believes the group's efforts have put ADOT on the defensive and in damage control, and she says it's only a matter of time until they stop this highway project once and for all.
“We were very disappointed when the judge rejected the preliminary injunction, but that ruling had nothing to do with the merit of our lawsuit,” Lawlis says. “We anticipate the case will be heard in the spring, and we have a solid team, and our case is a slam dunk . . . Our case was strong to begin with, but then with the Gila River Indian Community [joining it], the case is even stronger.”
Krugel declined to comment on the case, writing only that ADOT and the Federal Highway Administration, the co-defendants, “were pleased with the with the court’s ruling last month to deny the motion for a preliminary injunction [since it] allows ADOT to keep the project on schedule and to continue with the many steps of the pre-construction process that need to be completed prior to construction on this long-planned freeway project.”
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ADOT says it will begin leveling homes and properties this week and plans to begin the actual construction of the highway in 2016, completing the project sometime between 2019 and 2020.
“It looks like they’re getting ready for it,” Lawlis says. “But these houses are in the middle of where people live, and there are still a lot of people living [in the area]. It’s so sad; they’re such beautiful homes.
“We're going to make sure this highway doesn't happen,” she insists.