Longform

YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK

A RIBBON through bleakness, the latest installment of the Hohokam Expressway snakes up from the south, fording the Salt River. It gathers momentum, sending exit ramps diving for Sky Harbor International Airport and Washington Street, and seems to promise a shot at Camelback Mountain before merging into McDowell Road.

Like all freeways, the Hohokam, focuses its travelers on the destination rather than the journey. It is unsafe and unnecessary to try to take in the scenery, and frankly, there is not much to see beyond the expressway's own sculpted, elevated shoulders. Looking down to the east, a little south of Washington Street, there are unsightly hills of dirt and a rusted husk of what once may have been a grain elevator. This nondescript plot of land is surrounded by a dull wire fence.

Gene Gabrielli used to own this land before the state took it from him to build the freeway. Though he denies it, Gabrielli thought he stood to make a little profit when he found out his business was in the path of the bulldozers.

Instead he has endured years of legal anguish and wrecked finances. Not only didn't he make a profit from the sale of his land, the state offered him roughly $100,000 less than he had paid for it six years before. Because of the difficulties in finding a proper site on which to relocate, he hasn't been able to operate his business for two years. And worst of all, Arizona authorities want to bill him for what could be more than $1 million to clean up a toxic-waste spill he did not create, one that probably would have never occurred had the state followed established guidelines for environmental assessments before it built the Hohokam Expressway.

Environmental hazards are a relatively new variable in the real estate business. Because of the vast amounts of pollution present in Arizona's real estate, however, it's a problem you're going to be hearing about more often. During the past 20 years or so, a body of laws and regulations has evolved to manage this new area of risks. One of the pro forma rituals of a modern land transaction is the performance of a study to determine whether, based on past use, a parcel is likely to become an environmental problem in the future. Ordinarily, these studies are conducted at the behest of a prospective buyer hoping to indemnify himself against cleanup liability. These studies may be as brief as a quick look-see on the land, or if an engineer suspects a lot's history, or if present use suggests the possible presence of nasty chemicals under the ground, then more complex research-core samples, hydrological studies-may be undertaken as a precaution.

In the case of Gene Gabrielli's land, the state ordered only a limited audit, a study as cursory as a walk around the property, and did not proceed to a more extensive examination until after a spill had been created. ²Although the state admits it caused the spill, either through negligence or lack of foresight, Arizona claims that Gabrielli is liable for the cleanup. The cost is expected to climb to $1 million. The Arizona Department of Transportation holds that what has happened to Gabrielli is just one of the unfortunate, unavoidable things that can happen when highways are built in haste.

And that's how we build them around here.
Roads like the Hohokam Expressway are a relatively new phenomenon to the Valley of the Sun. Local residents have been slow to embrace the advantages of clean, unencumbered paths through town. While cities in other parts of the country were girding themselves with beltways and outer loops, the Valley clung stubbornly to its stoplight-clogged arterial road system. In Arizona, freeways were seen as unnecessary, impersonal people-movers tracking through the country oblivious to any sense of place. Worse yet, they were seen as a threat to the quality of life enjoyed by Phoenicians who were determined not to turn their city into Ôanother Los Angeles." Part of the reason some were attracted to Phoenix was its manageable scale and insulation from civilization; plenty of new Valley residents were willing to shut the door behind them" after they settled in their arid homeland.

Unfortunately, they forgot to tell the economic development guys," Dan Galvin of the Arizona Department of Transportation says. They kept bringing in industry, and people follow the jobs."

Galvin, ADOT's director of community relations, has the slightly clerical look of a young congressman's aide, the sort of earnest level gaze that inspires confidence in bartenders and police detectives. It falls to him to explain why it's so hard to get from one end of Maricopa County to the other.

The concern was that we didn't want to become another big, ugly city," he begins. Taxpayers voted down a number of issues that would have funded highway construction...in the mid-1970s the Arizona Republic was running editorials urging people to vote `no' on [freeway proposals.] People just didn't want it."

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Philip Martin