It was standing room only as over 100 area residents crowded into the Picture Rocks Community Center August 21 for the month’s regular Citizens for Picture Rocks (C4PR) meeting. The guest speaker was Jay Van Echo, Study Manager for the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) and Federal Highway Administration’s (FWHA) Interstate 11 Tier One Environmental Impact Statement. The $15 million study, in its second year, has narrowed its choices to either a new Avra Valley highway, which would impact some 25,000 people living in the Avra Valley, or working within the existing Interstate 10 corridor with widening or double decking small portions. There is also a rarely invoked No Build option.
With Van Echo were FHWA Deputy Aryan Lirange and ADOT press agent Laura Douglas. An invitation had been accepted for Van Echo to speak at a C4PR meeting exactly one year ago, but the Study Manager bailed out at the last minute. Unlike the ADOT/FHWA public meetings where no discussion or questions were allowed from the floor, C4PR President Della Grove had a list of prepared questions and accepted questions and comments from the audience, asking only that they use the microphone so everyone could hear them, and that they be respectful.
Van Echo began with a history of the I-11 study, citing talk of a “Canamex Corridor” going back to 1991, followed by NAFTA in 1994, through the 2015 FAST Act where Arizona Senator John McCain’s pro-I-11 amendment was added. No funding has yet been identified for I-11 in Arizona. The ADOT representative stressed that the Tier One Study was “a deliberative document and not a decision document.” It is no secret that ADOT and FHWA have favored an Avra Valley route from the beginning.
When told that County Administrator Charles Huckelberry’s plan for I-11 called for the eviction of 47 families, Van Echo quipped that they would be “impacted, not evicted…it depends on whether you have a motivated buyer or a motivated seller.” Asked about the President’s goals to bring jobs back to America and I-11’s Business Case to attract jobs to Mexico, the Study Manager said that “Mexico is America’s number one trade partner…if there’s a wall, there will be gates.” He added that ADOT was working with Mexican planners. But Van Echo “could not recall” when asked about the City of Tucson’s position on I-11 but remembered after being prompted that Tucson supported improving the I-10 corridor and had concerns about potential CAP settling pond pollution.
When asked if the Study Team would pay attention to the “thousands of comments” opposing I-11 in the Avra Valley, if there was a threshold for making decisions, he said, “No…all voices are equal.” In fact, 89 percent of over 3000 comments opposed an Avra Valley I-11, with only ½ of one percent in favor.
With the “preferred alternative” to be announced by the end of the year, there will be a series of public meetings likely in January, and will include Tucson and Marana locations. Van Echo agreed to open them up to public questions and comments rather than a speech followed by one-on-one comments to staff. He also agreed to seek better days and times so that more people could participate. A final decision will be made by the federal government after studies are completed. He said also that “there’s no definite plan at this stage…we don’t build roads if they’re not really needed.” The audience groaned in disbelief.
Citizens for Picture Rocks, a 17-year-old 501 (c) (4) community group, had complained to the planners about not being invited to a recent series of “Stakeholder Engagement Meetings” which many saw as a ploy to make the 89 percent and the ½ of one percent somehow equal, but which came out instead with a strong statement opposing an Avra Valley I-11 and calling for improvements on I-10. Van Echo said the invitation had been sent to Pamela Moseley, former C4PR president. Moseley, a Pima County employee, said she had no memory of ever receiving such an invitation.
For I-11 study reports, summaries and raw documents, visit i11study.com/Arizona. Comments may be submitted at any time.