Gila River Indian Community Asks U.S. Judge to Block South Mountain Freeway

The Gila River Indian Community this week asked a U.S. District judge to issue a summary judgment in its lawsuit challenging a planned expansion of the Loop 202 freeway.

In the lawsuit, filed against the Federal Highway Administration and the Arizona Department of Transportation, the community argues that the freeway extension will desecrate culturally significant trails, shrines, and archaeological sites on South Mountain or, as the tribe calls it, Muhadagi Doag. Government officials, they allege, failed to take this into account before plowing ahead, violating the Department of Transportation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The community also contends that ADOT and the FHA lacked authority to select the route because it trespasses over reservation land.

The proposed eight-lane, 22-mile pass, debated since the mid-1980s and approved in early 2015, would connect the Southeast Valley and Southwest Valley by extending Loop 202 through the Ahwatukee Foothills, South Mountain Preserve, and Laveen area, then connecting to Interstate 10 near 59th Avenue. 

ADOT officials tout the project, which is expected to cost $1.9 billion, as a way to not only reduce congestion on I-10, but also to promote economic development in what is already one of the nation's fastest-growing regions. By 2035, the agency estimates, between 117,000 and 190,000 vehicles will use the pass, dubbed the South Mountain Freeway, every day.

Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis argues, though, that Muhadagi Doag "isn't simply a few acres of land to us."

"The mountain is one of our most important, most sacred resources," Lewis said in a written statement. 

The tribe is just one of a number of groups to challenge the freeway expansion in court. In May of 2015, Protecting Arizona's Resources and Children joined forces with eight other environmental groups, including the Arizona chapter of the Sierra Club, Don't Waste Arizona, Gila River Alliance for a Clean Environment, and the Phoenix Mountain Preservation Council, to file a lawsuit. 

The suits have now been consolidated. 

Protecting Arizona's Resources and Children, which has fought the freeway expansion for decades, has suggested it's possible to achieve the same connectivity goals without cutting through the South Mountain preserve by, for example — rerouting I-10 so all but local traffic would bypass the Valley, or by building a light rail along Pecos Road. But the government, they allege, has not been receptive to compromise.

The group, in a blog posted on its website, accuses state and federal transportation agencies of being "the bully who loves to use the hammer of eminent domain" without "having to be respectful to people."

"Blasting through three ridges of South Mountain is an outrageous, irresponsible action that would permanently disfigure South Mountain, destroying the integrity of the park, the mountain, and its ecosystem," PARC wrote. "This destruction must be stopped."

In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed April 25, ADOT argues that the government conducted a "rigorous 13-year analysis," including conducting an environmental impact study that follows best practices for transportation projects, and found a "lack of viable alternatives."

Maricopa County voters, most recently in 2004 through Proposition 400, the agency points out, have twice approved the project.

"Without a South Mountain Freeway, regional freeways and local roads will face even greater congestion, and residents and businesses will face longer delays sitting in stop-and-go traffic," ADOT spokesman Dustin Krugel told New Times in an e-mail. 

After the court rejected the Gila Indian Community's request for a preliminary injunction to block work on the project this past August, ADOT, which has been acquiring properties along the proposed freeway route for 20 years, began razing homes in Ahwatukee

Construction is scheduled to begin this summer. The government plans to wrap up the project between 2019 and 2020. 

Watch ADOT's video about the South Mountain Freeway: