ADOT ‘Stakeholders’ Meets To Split Avra Valley I-11 Opposition Backfires

With a recommendation for either a “Build Corridor Alternative” or an unlikely “No Build” option due in August from a three-year, $15 million Arizona Department of Transportation/Federal Highways Administration Interstate 11study, ADOT strategy seems to have backfired.  The choices in the study are down to two – using the existing I-10 corridor, and possibly double-decking six miles of highway from Ruthrauff to I-19, or a new highway through the Avra Valley.  The double-decking option, according to former ADOT State Engineer Jennifer Toth, would save taxpayers nearly $2 billion.

With more than 3,000 comments from the public, perhaps an ADOT record, the planners’ promise to “reflect the range of viewpoints voiced” is likely to be put to the test.  Some 89 percent of those comments opposed either I-11 or an I-11 Avra Valley route.  Only one-half-of one percent favored the west of Tucson highway.  ADOT’s planners sought to mitigate that overwhelming opposition by convening a series of invitation-only “Stakeholders’ Meetings” to bring all sides together.  It didn’t work out the way they expected.

First, major groups were never invited, or invitations were sent to non-existent email addresses.  While the 16-year-old 501(c)(4) community group Citizens for Picture Rocks was on the list of invitees, no one actually received an invitation, and requests for representation for the 10,000 residents were ignored.  The group, which formally adopted a Statement of Policy over a year ago opposing any Avra Valley I-11, let its feelings be known in a July 25 letter to ADOT planner Jay Van Echo and FHWA Division Administrator Karla Petty:

“Our exclusion, representing 10,000 potentially-affected area residents of whom more than 1,000 submitted comments, along with meeting reports from those we know who were included, lead any rational person to understand that these meetings were a sham, an ADOT-FHWA effort to weaken the strong feelings against an Avra Valley Interstate 11 route.  Spending $15 million on such a sham is a shameful waste of taxpayer money, and the “Stakeholders’ Engagement Meetings” segment clearly did not meet your transparent goal of dividing community opposition for an Avra Valley highway.”

The group’s president, Della Grove, extended an invitation to both to attend an upcoming community meeting to defend their positions.  ADOT’s Jay Van Echo accepted, but then declined, a similar invitation last year.  A copy of the community group’s Statement is attached, and summarizes the many reasons for opposing a new, partially-elevated, highway through the valley.

Second, the “Stakeholders Meetings” did not go as ADOT anticipated.  The initial invitations said, “FHWA and ADOT have invited the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution (U.S. Institute) to facilitate a discussion regarding the I-11 Tier 1 EIS Corridor Study in Pima County, to augment the ongoing public input effort. The U.S. Institute will take the lead by conducting two sets of stakeholder engagement meetings…with the objective of facilitating additional productive Pima County community conversations to inform the I-11 Tier 1 EIS Corridor decision-making process.”  Critics saw these meetings as a way for planners to try and give equal weight to the one-half percent, to weaken the strong majority position.

Ross Maynard and Robin Clark represented the Avra Valley Coalition, an informal group opposing I-11 which came together over a decade ago when the issue was the I-10 Bypass and then the “Huckelberry Highway,” the name given to the Pima County Administrator’s plan for an Avra Valley highway – both slight variations of the I-11 route expected to be recommended by the planners in defiance of Board of Supervisors’ Resolution 2007-343 opposing any such highway.  Coalition efforts to organize neighbors for the public meetings and comments have included an online petition campaign, postcard mailings, and research that the planners would prefer to ignore.

That research began with reading ADOT’s own “Business Case” for I-11, which is a plan to facilitate the export of jobs to Mexico and to steal jobs from West Coast Ports to the Mexican port of Guaymas.  “Nearshoring” envisions attracting American companies from China to Mexico, and “Integrative Manufacturing” hopes for R&D in the US, with manufacture and assembly in Mexico, where wages are now lower than in China.

Additional research showed that some 1500 acres along the “Huckelberry Highway” route were owned by Cardon Family companies.  Will Cardon, before committing suicide a year ago, ran for elective office in Republican primaries with support from Don Diamond, who regularly sells land to Pima County and raises money for friendly supervisors at election time.  Diamond stands to gain an access highway for his planned Swan Southlands development; now called the “Sonoran Corridor.”   That connection between I-10 and I-19 was originally labeled I-11 on maps provided by the County Administrator prior to the current study.  It was also rejected by voters in the 2015 bond election.

Notes from the “Stakeholders’ Meetings” showed that, “The geographic information offered by ADOT and FHWA was poor, inadequate, without sufficient detail, and incomplete….  There was consensus that there seemed to be a desire on the part of the FHWA and ADOT to keep the two stakeholder Groups separate and unable to communicate jointly because the FHWA and ADOT appeared unable to accept the overwhelming negative response to the C/D Avra Valley route in the public process to date and were looking for justification for that route. For example, one member of Group B was told by Arian of the FHWA that the C/D Group didn’t care about the Tucson route alternative, only the Avra Valley alternative.”

Business interests who originally attended the meetings had dropped out, and the remaining Stakeholders agreed to create a positively framed letter from Groups B and C/D in support of co-location of I-11 along the I-19 and I-10 alignments. Use the example of the tunneled, buried freeway in Phoenix as an example (and) a letter opposing any citing of a new bypass in the Avra Valley.”  Not what ADOT and FHWA intended.

The draft letter includes this: “a majority of stakeholders believe that in the event the I-10/I-19 route is chosen in the Tier 1 process, it presents a meaningful opportunity to rectify historic mistakes associated with the construction of I-10 through Tucson, so as to reconnect communities that were divided by I-10 as well as boosting the local economy. Importantly, the letter demonstrates the necessity of citizen involvement throughout this process.”

But, as one commenter who had worked for ADOT noted last year, the process requires planners to solicit public input but does not require them to pay any attention to it.  In any event, the ADOT planners’ scheme to divide and weaken the bipartisan anti-Avra Valley highway opposition turned out to broaden their scope and win new allies.  Among those are ranchers in the southern Avra Valley and Altar Valley who have been watching their Pima County assessed valuations go down, possibly to lower the cost of acquiring the land for I-11.

When the “recommended alternative” is unveiled, probably in August, there will then be a month of public meetings and comments.  At that point ADOT/FHWA will move to defend their choice with any alternatives taken off the table.

In light of the Trump Administration’s stated goal of keeping jobs in America, the Avra Valley Coalition wrote to the President, and to the Secretary of Transportation, and to the Federal Highway Administration, on February 24 asking if they supported I-11 and its stated goal of exporting American jobs?  A response from the White House was received on July 20, five months later, touting recent tax cuts and the repeal of regulations, but with no mention of Interstate 11.  Together,” President Trump declared, “we are advancing an agenda that benefits all hardworking Americans by putting them first.”  There has been no response from DOT or FHWA officials.

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