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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.

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Dave Walker