Of all the obstacles the proposed toll road around South Mountain must pass--feasibility studies, air-quality tests, number-crunching, etc., etc.--the greatest might be real obstacles.

Small mountains, actually. The 5.5-mile tollway, which would connect the sea of pink-roofed subdivisions south of South Mountain Park with Phoenix's west side, has surfaced as a pilot project by a private group vying to bail out the woeful freeway plan administered by the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT).

The heavy-hitting group, VUE 2000, is made up of the downtown law firm of Snell & Wilmer, HDR Engineering, and Coopers & Lybrand accountants.

It wants to form a nonprofit entity, issue tax-free bonds, then build the middle section of ADOT's proposed South Mountain Freeway, which as planned may someday stretch from I-10 at about 59th Avenue on the west side to I-10 and Pecos Road south of South Mountain.

It also wants first crack at all the for-profit, road-related contracts its three member firms can handle.

ADOT maps, drawn from an eye-of-God aerial perspective, typically show the middle section of the South Mountain Freeway--the stretch that VUE 2000 wants to build as a toll road--bending northward to neatly skirt Phoenix's fine mountain park.

In truth, ADOT's road--and now the proposed toll road--is routed smack through the middle of two sizable ridges that extend from the heart of the huge park beyond its southwestern boundaries. However, the toll road would actually bisect one of the ridges inside the park.

But park or not, the toll road can go through, because the South Mountain Freeway was already planned when the state--after an intense lobbying effort by mountain-park preservationists in the late 1980s--outlawed building roads through designated parkland.

According to preservationists who dog this kind of issue for sport, the road builders would have to blast deep V-cuts through the two small mountains of solid rock.

In fact, early ADOT engineering sketches of the cuts show a series of ledges leading up from either side of the roadbed, a design that presumably lessens the chance of rock slides. One of the cuts is projected at more than 200 feet deep.

Heaps of fill from the cuts will be used to elevate the roadbed leading into the ridges and in the valley between them. "It'll look just like a strip mine," says park activist David Gironda. "Once the road is in, it's just going to be a perpetual degradation of the lifestyle of the community and the enjoyment of the park."

Jog the road just a quarter-mile to the west and it misses the ridges and relieves the need for costly, 200-foot excavations.

But the road's path, penciled to life back when ADOT could still build roads without any help, was specifically drawn to avoid running onto the Gila River Indian Community, which tightly borders the freeway corridor.

Until the toll proposal surfaced a few weeks ago, mountain watchers and nearby residents believed that the South Mountain Freeway loop wouldn't be built until well into the first decade of the next century--if ever, based on ADOT's pokey track record.

But VUE 2000, which stands for "Valley Urban Expressways for the 21st Century," is working with the City of Phoenix to explore getting it done a lot sooner. To say that the private road-building consortium wants this project on the "fast track" is an understatement.

At a January 25 meeting between VUE 2000 representatives, Phoenix officials and ADOT, the private group floated an agenda that called for the Phoenix City Council to pass a resolution approving the road by early March--the first big step in getting the toll road rolling.

According to Jack Tevlin, a Phoenix deputy city manager, VUE 2000's hurry-up agenda has been slowed.

"I think their time frame is a little too ambitious to allow the kind of public process that the City of Phoenix would demand before any decision was made," he says.

Still, a scenario is taking shape in which the toll road could proceed within the next few months.

ADOT loves the idea of toll roads. The Phoenix City Council has officially authorized city staffers to entertain all such offers.

"It looks to me like a perfect project," says VUE 2000 spokesman Bill Hicks, bond expert and senior partner at Snell & Wilmer. "It's not so ambitious that people will be intimidated by it, and it's not so minuscule that it is not a good, valid test project."
At this point, though:
Nobody knows if people here will pay tolls. It's never been tried in Arizona.

Nobody knows if the toll road would pay for itself (or exactly what would happen if it didn't, causing the private road-building authority to go belly-up). Even VUE 2000 isn't yet sure that the toll road would work. According to Hicks, the group has already invested $1.5 million to $2 million--Give or take, who the hell knows?"--to explore the concept of building public works with "user fees." The exploration is ongoing.

And nobody yet knows if the new road would really relieve the twice-a-day traffic jam it is designed to heal.

The hottest new neighborhoods in Phoenix are trapped on the wrong side of the gridlocked intersection of I-10 and the Superstition Freeway. The foothills-area pink-roofers who must commute into the city join the mess every morning and evening.

The city believes the toll road would give I-10 travelers and truckers a southerly bypass around downtown, and relieve some of the commuting logjam, by funneling up to 20,000 cars around the west side of the mountain every day. Mountain preservationists and south-slope residents aren't so sure. Instead, they say that the one sure thing about this road, if it got the go-ahead today, is that it would make mountains move.

@body:South Mountain Park is a public possession unmatched in America. It is the largest urban park in the country, as well as the largest piece of Phoenix's mountain-parks system, which citizens groups have diligently fought to preserve for decades.

From a distance, the park appears to be a wall of boulders topped by TV and radio antennas. Closer, it becomes a great deal more.

In addition to the fine views from its summits, the park has winding roads and trails for fitness nuts to hike and bike, and plenty of picnic areas. The park is also unmatched for its let's-get-lost spots.

Literally within minutes of downtown are places in the park's valleys and canyons, protected by its 2,600-foot peaks, that could be 100 miles from any city.

No smog. No people. No nothing but brown rock, creosote bushes, bugs and the occasional rusting Bud can to relieve the otherwise unspoiled monotony of it all.

A decade ago, most of the private land south of South Mountain rivaled the park in its comparatively pristine condition and splendid solitude.

West of Ahwatukee, the master-planned community that hugs the southeastern slopes of the park, the only serious development was an International Harvester vehicle-testing track.

These days, "serious development" is the only way to describe the foothills and flatlands south of the mountain.

Phoenix's borders incorporate the south-slope neighborhoods, so the area can rightfully be called the fastest-growing part of the city.

Road signs listing only developers' names point visitors to the latest subdivisions. The homes are all new. The schools are all new. So are the golf courses and the artificial lakes.

The mountain blocks most of the Valley's air pollution. Likewise for most of the Valley's societal pollution, including the recurring homeowners' nightmares of crime, bad schools, declining neighborhoods.

The freshly stuccoed, stick-construction homes typically fill their lots, and crowd one another up to the very border of the preserve and its mountains, which are, needless to say, the only not-new things for as far as the eye can see.

The foothills developments include Mountain Park West, Lakewood (originally master-planned by Charles Keating), Del Webb's Foothills and dozens of lesser subdivisions that carry names like Granite Cove.

Slight variations in roof hues signal the borders between developments. The Gila River Indian Community limits residential growth to the south, but the desert parcels toward the west end of the foothills area south of the mountain are ripe for development, so it won't be too long before the pink-roof sea engulfs these sloping foothills, as it has to the east.

For most of the day, there are no apparent drawbacks to this kind of country living. During rush hour, the scene changes. Feeder roads out of the foothills feed bumper-to-bumper traffic to and from I-10, itself a slowly moving parking lot for hours each morning and evening.

Compounding the back-up are residents commuting to and from jobs in the East Valley suburbs. Chandler Boulevard, one of the key east-west interstate crossings, is one lane in either direction over I-10.

"That's the drawback" to the south-of-the-mountain lifestyle, says city official Jack Tevlin, pointing to the I-10/Superstition Freeway confluence. "If you've got to commute, there's a heavy congestion problem.

"If we were to do a toll road, it would be in the interest of relieving congestion for the citizens that live south of South Mountain."
@body:Phoenix's road grid extends down south of the mountain. The toll road as planned today would run from Pecos Road at about 19th Avenue, bending north through the far-western tip of the mountain park to connect with 51st Avenue.

ADOT's original plan calls for the diagonal leg of the South Mountain Freeway to someday continue on to about 59th Avenue, where it will then turn north. But the toll road's western terminus would dump traffic onto 51st Avenue, a two-lane country road that runs through Laveen, an unincorporated dot on the map populated by cotton farmers and other folks who like the rural life.

According to Tevlin, the tollway would at least double the current traffic through Laveen. As an interim solution, Tevlin says, 51st may be widened to two lanes in each direction.

At its eastern end, the toll road would exit its traffic onto Pecos, a dirt strip currently being upgraded into a four-lane road. Despite the projected improvements to Pecos, homeowners in the area are already worried about the traffic generated by the toll road, primarily because there are no plans to build a freeway interchange connecting Pecos to I-10 until the South Mountain Freeway is completed to the interstate, something that's not scheduled to occur until midway through the next decade.

Unless ADOT's plans change uncharacteristically quickly, interstate-bound cars, vans and cross-country truckers from the toll road will be dumped onto Pecos Road. They will then have to make their way about a mile north, past residential tracts, to reach Chandler Boulevard, the nearest thoroughfare that connects with I-10.

"That's not going to make for a lot of happy campers," says Kris Black, a Foothills resident who sits on the development's homeowners' association board.

Black says many area builders have sold homes on the premise that ADOT's planned freeway wouldn't tear through until at least 2006. The sights and sounds of long-haul trucks and other interlopers gear-grinding through subdivision streets doesn't exactly jibe with the image that has sold so many new homes in the foothills.

"The rumor fed to people is that this [toll road] is gonna happen quick," she says. "They see it as a truck bypass and a lot of traffic past our houses."
And that, Black says, would not be a fair trade for whatever relief the toll road might provide to commuters.

Black and others doubt even that projected benefit.
Mountain-preserve activist David Gironda says he's seen studies that show most of the commuters who head in to the city from the Foothills area work east of Central Avenue.

"A limited amount of people down here work in the west Valley," confirms Black, who works in Mesa and so avoids most of the jam-up. Even figuring in the agonies of the daily crawl up I-10, Black says she doubts many of her downtown-commuting neighbors will pay to take the around-the-mountain bypass.

"It's a question to me what the purpose of it is," she says. "If I was driving to L.A., I might use it." @rule:

@body:VUE 2000 is the direct manifestation of an extremely desperate Arizona Department of Transportation.

Of the 231 miles of freeways promised to the Valley by ADOT, only 38 miles have been poured. A half-cent sales tax enacted in 1985 to pay for those miles runs through 2006.

Still, there is some loose talk about dipping into taxpayers' wallets for an additional half-cent tax this fall. If voters were to approve such an increase, perhaps in November's election, ADOT might be able to accelerate some of its road-building plans, which at the current pace stretches the completion date of some highway segments into the science-fiction year of 2030.

But chances of a successful vote are so slim that the big cigars promoting the idea are extremely skittish about even putting it on the ballot. VUE 2000's unique solution--dubbed "a nifty gimmick" by spokesman Bill Hicks--first surfaced last year, when the group proposed to build out all of ADOT's unfinished roads as tollways.

Under that wildly ambitious plan, VUE 2000 would found the nonprofit toll authority and build the roads. In exchange, the three firms composing VUE 2000 would get automatic first dibs on as many of the road-related, for-profit contracts as possible.

That plan was widely panned and faded away--but it resurfaced recently in miniature form at the suggestion of City of Phoenix staffers. "They allowed as how this South Mountain thing, in their view, would make an ideal first segment for our project," says Hicks. "In other words, a good, basic test to demonstrate that the concept worked."

According to ADOT, a California tollway currently in the works is the only known precedent for this kind of nongovernmental road building.

Accordingly, VUE 2000 is still trying to make the South Mountain toll-road numbers work. Hicks says that traffic and engineering studies are under way, and that both will likely be completed soon. "We're talking weeks and months, not years," says Hicks of the studies, adding that he suspects that both will prove "satisfactory and promising."

Still to be decided is the actual toll itself. Current plans call for regular users to be billed monthly through the mail (their trips would be registered electronically), but all other traffic would have to stop and throw pocket change at a toll booth. Or will it be pocket change? Tevlin says his understanding from VUE 2000 is that the proposed toll, which first surfaced in the 50- to 75-cent range, has already jumped to about $1 each way.

@body:Tevlin says city approval of the toll road "would take several months, at least," adding that nobody's deciding anything until the sales-tax ballot intrigue ends. Says Hicks: "We're here as an alternative, whether the thing gets put on the ballot or not."

Should the city approve the idea, it would be passed along to the Maricopa Association of Governments--the organization that oversees urban freeways.

And after MAG approval, ADOT--via the State Transportation Committee--would get the final say-so.

At this early juncture, the long-befuddled ADOT is clearly in favor of the idea. Peggy Rubach, former MAG director, former Mesa mayor and current assistant to ADOT director Larry Bonine, has been assigned to handhold with VUE 2000 as it moves through the bureaucratic process.

ADOT's role in the toll road process, says Rubach, has been to say, "Gee, this is an exciting concept, but there are hoops you have to jump through here, and we will help you jump through them.'"

For its part, VUE 2000 would prefer fewer hoops.
"Wouldn't anybody?" says Hicks. "We're businessmen."

@body:If it were built today, VUE 2000's toll road would barrel through a corridor assembled years ago by ADOT from city, state and private holdings.

The route has been "a line on a map" since the early 1960s, says ADOT spokesman Dan Galvin, but it wasn't officially set until the mid-1980s, back when ADOT was flush and still planning roads.

Clearly, it was designed then to avoid the Gila River Indian Community boundary--at the expense of the mountain ridges that now stand in the way.

Back when this freeway path was being set, the Indian community objected to the slight westerly jog onto its land for a couple of reasons, according to Cecil Antone, current lieutenant governor of the tribe.

One, there was a desire by the tribe to move the east-west leg of the road farther south to a Queen Creek Road alignment, a move that would have opened up the reservation for commercial development.

Two, the villages of St. Johns and Komatke would tightly border the road, and there was concern about noise and traffic.

According to David Gironda, one of the mountain-preserve activists who still holds hope that the road can bypass the ridges to the west by running onto Indian-community land, the current plan offers little relief from the Indians' noise and traffic concerns.

The flatland detour around the ridges could be built below grade, says Gironda, with built-in noise-abatement berms and walls--a vast improvement from the unshielded ramps and cuts of the ridge road.

"If this thing goes in, it's gonna have such an adverse impact that it will severely degrade the area out there," says Gironda, who hounded ADOT throughout the corridor-setting process almost a decade ago. "You're going to have an elevated ramp with no noise or light barriers whatsoever going into these cuts in the mountain that are gonna be horrendous. The noise, fumes and everything else will not be able to be mitigated."
Antone, interviewed last week by New Times, says the tribe as a whole isn't likely to reopen discussion of any roadway at this late date, unless planners would reconsider the Queen Creek Road route.

"We've never really given serious consideration to directing it farther south," says the city's Jack Tevlin, noting that a Queen Creek alignment would not do enough to ease the I-10 bottleneck. "That doesn't serve our transportation purpose. "Unless the Native American community is interested in seeing the connection change, and they felt that was a positive thing for their community, then probably we're left with the current alignment.

"I know there are people who wish that would happen and who would like to see that happen, but I've never heard of any positive commitment."
@body:The mountain-park preservationists, organized into groups such as the Phoenix Mountains Preservation Council (PMPC), have been pursuing other avenues to stop the ridge-cut road for years. "As soon as it was discovered that the freeway was going to go through the preserve, there's been opposition to it," says Michael Goodman, a longtime mountain-preserve activist who resides in a home directly below the north face of South Mountain Park. "Myself and other people have testified at virtually every opportunity against it."

So far, save-the-ridges action has not expanded beyond the letter-writing and meeting-holding stages.

But rabble-rousers such as Gironda, a real estate appraiser by profession, and Goodman, whose profession appears to be full-time authority questioning, can reel off several potential strategies to halt or reroute the road. Gironda places a lot of hope in a supposedly precedent-setting case out of Texas, in which the state tried to build a freeway through parkland but was stopped by the courts.

Another possible trip-wire might be the toll road's effect on air quality, say the mountain watchers. The road will have to be cleared by an acronym hell of pollution-control authorities.

Considering the players lined up behind it, though, the project already has considerable momentum.

"They might find loopholes enough to get it done, I realize that," says Gironda. "But the public outcry afterwards and the serious impacts upon the Indian community out there, as well as any user of South Mountain Park, will be eternal. It's never going to end."
Ironically, a final glimmer of hope for the preservationists may be the cost of the cuts themselves. Extrapolating from excavation cost estimates made years ago by ADOT, Gironda says the solid-rock excavation could cost VUE 2000 as much as $30 million. While Hicks allows that it "sounds like it might be cheaper if we can avoid a major excavation" through the ridges--a point also noted by Phoenix City Councilmember Skip Rimsza before a recent meeting of the PMPC--Hicks adds: "I respect the rights of people who have their agendas and their causes. That's important.

"But once we start the process, it would be very damaging to the program to have somebody throw up a stink," he continues. "We want to sort through all those issues up-front, make sure they're all sorted out. "All we're doing is taking a path that ADOT has prescribed and trying to do the engineering and financing analysis. If they want to move it farther west and they want us to make that analysis, we can do that." Concludes the City of Phoenix's Tevlin of possible challenges to the toll road's right of way: "I think we've touched all of the legal bases on that question. There have been questions about the legality of the current alignment. I think all of that has been carefully researched, and there are no legal obstacles to it. There may be emotional obstacles to it.

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Dave Walker