State Legislator Backs Avra Valley Residents Opposing I-11; ADOT Voicemail Flooded As Comments Close

Adding his voice to the estimated one-thousand-plus comments submitted to the Arizona Dept. of Transportation’s Interstate 11 Study, L.D. 11 Representative Mark Finchem told ADOT, “I believe it is irresponsible to build a new roadway through sensitive desert habitats, especially a roadway of questionable value.  We have a corridor (the existing I-10) that, if expanded will both protect our virgin land, while increasing traffic capacity.  Until (I-10) is completed we ought not disturb any more land than is necessary.”

Finchem, a Republican, is a Northwest-area realtor with a long career as a public safety officer, and sits on the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee.   The opposition to an Avra Valley I-11 struggle has brought together unlikely allies of many political stripes, Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Libertarians and Tea Party members, and united hard-core environmentalists with hard-scrabble rural families who love living in the far reaches of the Sonoran Desert.

In his June 1 press release, Finchem noted that, “Interstate 10 is not yet completed. With long sections of two-lane expressway (in each direction) that should be expanded to three-lane road way in both directions from Eloy to Phoenix.  This is the least expensive option to increase capacity and improve safety for all…We are having trouble paying for maintaining the roadways we have, how will we support even more roadways with repairs and rejuvenation?..We should be maintaining and improving the roads we already have.”

Unlike Finchem’s comments to ADOT which will be recorded as part of the I-11 Study record, many people found that the bi-lingual phone line advertised by the study team as a means of communicating comments had been overwhelmed by calls, leaving their voicemail box full.  There is no way to estimate how many comments were lost because of ADOT’s inadequate preparation for the June 2 comment deadline.

In related news, I-11 Study Project Manager Jay Van Echo will be coming to the Avra Valley on June 20 to speak to the regular monthly meeting of Citizens for Picture Rocks, a 15-year-old 501(c)(4) community improvement organization.  Their May meeting featured Kevin Dahl from the National Parks Conservation Association and Albert Lannon from the Avra Valley Coalition, both speaking in opposition to I-11 in the Avra Valley.  The meeting is Tuesday, June 20, 6:30 pm, at the Picture Rocks community Center, 5615 N. Sanders Road.  Meetings are free and open to all.

Lannon, whose attempt to ask a question at an I-11 public meeting in Marana was shut down by ADOT staff right after Van Echo termed the meeting “democracy in action,” is urging area residents to attend and ask questions, even though there will not likely be many answers because the I-11 Study is still underway.  Three questions that can be answered, he told ADI, are these:

  • When discussing an I-10 Bypass before I-11 came around, ADOT State Engineer Jennifer Toth said that double-decking just six miles of I-10, from Ruthrauff to I-19, would do everything they wanted for the next 30 years, but that it was too expensive. Turned out the cost-per-mile is higher, but improving I-10 would cost 1/3 the price of a new Avra Valley highway, and that could save taxpayers nearly $2 billion.  Those numbers were later confirmed by ADOT’s John Moran.  The question is: are those cost savings being factored into the present I-11 study?
  • Serious concerns and outright opposition to I-11 in the Avra Valley have come from over 1,000 residents who have commented officially to ADOT and nearly 1300 more who signed an online petition; from our district’s State Representatives; from the City of Tucson; Arizona Game & Fish; National Park Service; US Bureau of Land Management, US Bureau of Reclamation, Environmental Protection Agency, Friends of Ironwood Forest; Saguaro National Park; Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum; Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection; National Parks Conservation Association; and the Pima County Board of Supervisors in their Resolution 2007-343 which remains County policy.  Who, besides the Town of Marana and Chuck Huckelberry, is speaking out in favor of an Avra Valley route, and are any of those actually connected to the area (except as real estate speculators or their cronies)?
  • Speaking to the EIS Study process: If an Avra Valley route is chosen as the “preferred alternative,” doesn’t that take the I-10 corridor off the table and turn the study’s focus into finding ways to make that Avra Valley route happen, and dismissing the alternative?

While some Avra Valley residents consider I-11 a “done deal” backed by powerful interests, a story from Michigan shows the power of the people:  The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) pushed for the construction of a four-lane freeway parallel to the existing two-lane US-23 for close to a decade. The expansion would have rerouted US-23 through undeveloped country in the northeastern part of the state, causing the largest single wetlands loss in Michigan and severely compromising protected wildlife habitat, state and national forestland, coastal wetlands, and the Au Sable River Corridor.

Residents opposed the expansion, instead preferring to fix the existing highway by adding passing lanes and making other safety improvements. “Right from the start, that was our whole focus: Fix what we have and don’t build a new, billion-dollar freeway,” said Paul Bruce, founder of People for US-23 Freeway Alternatives, a citizens’ group in Alpena. MDOT issued a draft environmental impact statement in 1995 that considered only two choices: Build the extension or do nothing. Upon discovering this failure to fully analyze alternatives to new construction, the Federal Highway Administration stepped in.

It rejected the proposal, directed MDOT to upgrade the existing highway or study the creation of a less-damaging boulevard, and recommended resident-supported alternatives such as the addition of passing lanes and turn lanes and traffic signal upgrades. Kelly Thayer, transportation project coordinator at the Michigan Land Use Institute, said the intervention was a huge success. “NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) kept alive the public’s opportunity to give input,” said Thayer. Due to the NEPA process, these communities will be spared the devastating impacts of unneeded and unwanted expansion. And in the end, an eye-popping $1.5 billion will be saved.

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