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.