Supervisors Finally Speak Out On I-11: Cracks In The Crony Wall?

Opponents of the proposed Interstate 11 route through the Avra Valley, originated and championed by Pima County Administrator Charles Huckelberry, have been trying to get the Board of Supervisors, Huckelberry’s bosses, to put their unanimous Resolution 2007-343 into the public record during the Arizona Dept. of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration’s Tier 1 Environmental Impact Study for the past two years.  They finally succeeded.

[Read I-11 Opposition Letter]

Up until now, the only official comments from Pima County to ADOT were the County Administrator’s statements of support for an Avra Valley I-11 route.  The I-11 Study Team, headed by ADOT’s Jay Van Echo, is expected to release its choice of a “preferred alternative” – either the Avra Valley route or the existing I-10 corridor – soon, with public meetings and public comment to follow.  There is every indication that the long-favored Avra Valley route will be the choice despite growing opposition that has spread outside the valley.

Citizens for Picture Rocks, a rural Pima County community group, with support from the Avra Valley Coalition, had asked the Supervisors for a recertification of the eleven-year-old resolution opposing the construction of any new interstate highway in the county.  District 3 Supervisor Sharon Bronson said they might have problems getting that done, and offered a letter from BOS Chair Richard Elias and herself.

That letter, undated and addressed “To Whom It May Concern,” notes the previous BOS action and adds, “A freeway through the Avra Valley or other parts of the delicate Sonoran Desert is not compatible with the county’s landmark Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan or with its Sustainability Plan to combat climate change in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement.”  Citizens for Picture Rocks and the Avra Valley Coalition sent the letter out as a media release on December 14, but an online search did not show any media picking up the story.

The BOS Chair and immediate past Chair cited long-standing arguments against an Avra Valley route, concluding, “A new freeway through any pristine Sonoran Desert area, and especially through Avra Valley, still is a very bad idea and the Pima County Board of Supervisors remains officially opposed to it.”  There was no immediate comment from the County Administrator’s office.

So why did Bronson and Elias agree to go public with implied criticism of the county administrator, whose crony deals they have generally supported?   Observers close to the situation speculated that Democrat Bronson, who faced a strong re-election challenge from Republican Kim De Marco in 2016, may be worried about rumors of another strong candidate emerging in her district, and increased public discussion of a Green Tea Coalition running fusion candidates to gain a Board majority and oust Huckelberry.

In the 2016 election a last-minute infusion of tens of thousands of dollars raised by real estate developer Don Diamond from wealthy cronies is credited with saving Bronson from defeat.  Diamond, who works both sides of the aisle to increase his wealth, was on the campaign committee for Republican primary candidate Wil Cardon, who committed suicide last year.  Cardon family companies own some 1500 vacant acres along the route of what opponents call the “Huckelberry Highway.”

The “Sonoran Corridor” linking I-10 and I-19 south of the airport, Raytheon and the UA Tech Park, was originally labeled “I-11” on the County Administrator’s maps.  Instead of following a simple, and much less costly, east-west line, the “Sonoran Corridor” – subject of another current ADOT/FHWA Tier 1 Environmental Impact Study overseen by ADOT’s Jay Van Echo – takes a convoluted route south to give Diamond’s planned 3200-acre Swan Southlands/Verano development a free access highway.

While the Elias/Bronson letter does not mention the “Sonoran Corridor” by name, it is clear that the proposed new highway – which Huckelberry now calls an “auxiliary interstate,” is itself counter to official county policy.  It was also defeated by voters as part of the 2015 bond package.  ADOT’s Van Echo said at a public meeting that the public can expect that issue to be addressed by ADOT’s legal team sometime in 2019.

This line from the Supervisors’ letter applies to both I-11 and the “Sonoran Corridor” equally:  “The cost of buying land for building an entirely new freeway would be tremendous, when we do not have enough funds to maintain properly our existing roads and highways.”