The Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) put its Interstate 11 “Scoping Summary Report” online January 26, issuing a media release that seems to provide “alternate facts” to the public’s overwhelming rejection of a new highway in the Tucson-Marana and south area. The 1326-page document, which can be viewed in full or in shorter segments, can be accessed at i11study.com; click on Arizona, and then on Reports.
ADOT’s representatives met with 74 public agencies and held six public meetings in mid-2016, attracting 834 comments primarily from the community meetings, online survey and email. This was a first step in a three-year, $15 million Tier One Environmental Impact Study (EIS) to identify alternative routes. Their media release summarizes:
Agencies provided comments…including consideration of existing and proposed local and regional transportation plans; the need to study opportunities that foster economic development; and the importance of protecting environmentally sensitive resources. Some agencies stated that they prefer freeway alternatives that build upon and improve existing roadway infrastructure, while others said they favor building an entirely new interstate freeway.
Actually, in the Summary Report itself, the first choice of agencies, according to ADOT, is Prefer corridor alternatives on existing freeways versus new corridors. The City of Tucson said I-11 should follow existing highway corridors, perhaps adding truck-only lanes. They were also concerned about effects of an Avra Valley highway on the city’s water collection recharge area.
Pima County argued for the route through the Avra Valley proposed by Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. This is despite the fact that county policy, stated clearly in BOS Resolution 2007-343, opposes any bypass to the existing I-10 highway. The Avra Valley Coalition, a long-time I-11 opponent, has requested that the Resolution be included in the Report. County staff’s flagrant disregard of official county policy continues to puzzle government-watchers.
Public Comment Misrepresented
ADOT continues: The public had similar comments, along with many others (emphasis added). A majority of the public comments came through an online survey and comment form. Of those 657 responses, community members noted that a new freeway like Interstate 11 could address transportation concerns, such as relieving regional congestion, improving travel time and reliability, improving freight travel and reliability, and reducing bottlenecks on existing freeways.
A review of the actual public comments, however, tells a much different story. Words like disaster, unnecessary, catastrophic, appalling, bad, wasteful, delusional, avoid at all costs, no need, money pit, sham, for the benefit of a few, stay away — and some unprintable words – pepper the comments from people, many of whom live in the potentially affected area.
An overwhelming majority of comments oppose a new highway, especially what locals have dubbed the Huckelberry Highway. In fact, a majority of the 540 people who attended the public meetings went to those in Marana (150) and Tucson (150) to voice their protests, with smaller attendance at Wickenburg (95), Casa Grande (51), Buckeye (53), and Nogales (41).
Selective Media Choices
One of the appendices to the report lists media coverage, with links to print, TV and online stories. Many of those links are dead ends bringing up an ERROR message, and there are many missing stories. The Arizona Daily Independent is not listed at all, and only one of several Desert Times newspaper’s stories is listed, albeit with a broken link. Those stories were generally critical of I-11 and the well-documented manipulation of the media by county staff. The Avra Valley Coalition has asked that those stories be included and the links fixed.
ADOT’s survey questions assumed the respondent was in favor of I-11 and really just asked about how best to implement their plan.
Despite that, public comment was loud and clear, even if ADOT wants to downplay it. While the EIS will identify a variety of potential alternate routes this Spring, with another round of public meetings and comments in March or April, Project Director Jay Van Echo admitted to Avra Valley community representatives that there were really only two possible routes, the Huckelberry Highway or the existing I-10 corridor. ADOT acknowledged years ago that double-decking just six miles of I-10, from Ruthrauff to I-19, would do the job at one-third the cost, saving nearly $2 billion taxpayer dollars.
A Trump Card?
There is no mention in the Report of a new unknown added to the mix. That is President Donald Trump’s escalating argument with Mexico, with threats of a tariff on imports trying to force Mexico to pay for a border wall. Already Southern Arizona retailers are complaining about loss of business as Mexicans opt to stop shopping on the US side of the border. I-11 is touted as necessary for more trade with Mexico.
The ADOT Corridor Justification Report, also available online, has a vision of research and development in Arizona and Nevada with manufacture and assembly in Mexico; they call it “integrative manufacturing.” Planners also see “nearshoring,” attracting US companies from China to Mexico where wages are expected to be lower, and stealing jobs from West Coast ports to the expanding Mexican Port of Guaymas.
I-11, and its eastern wing — now called the Sonoran Corridor and rejected by Pima County voters in the 2015 bond election –has the bipartisan support of Arizona’s federal legislators who succeeded in getting I-11 included in last year’s FAST Act, making the highway eligible for federal funding. President Trump’s public pronouncements to keep jobs in the USA and to renegotiate NAFTA runs counter to I-11 supporters’ goals. Stay tuned.