A year of agitation and anxiety about the proposed route of the western half of the future South Mountain Freeway has resulted in the Arizona Department of Transportation selecting the same path that has been on planning maps for two decades.
Now, ADOT officials can turn their full attention to a much trickier question, where should this portion of Loop 202 pass through Ahwatukee Foothills?
Barring some event that turns the universe upside down, ADOT ended debate Thursday about the West Valley’s section of the South Mountain freeway by staying with the 55th Avenue alignment to reach Interstate 10.
Residents of the Laveen neighborhood bisected by that route had pushed for months for ADOT to move the freeway to a 99th Avenue alignment. That choice would have connected South Mountain with the western leg of the Loop 101, and relieved more traffic congestion on I-10 as it passes through Chandler, Mesa and Tempe.
But that option never was realistic. Phoenix and every other West Valley political entity wanted to keep the 55th Avenue route, which will cost at least $570 million less. ADOT wasn’t about to ignore so many power brokers and select a route that would be so expensive.
Just the opposite problem exists for the eastern half of the South Mountain Freeway. ADOT has planned for 20 years to build along Pecos Road. But a lack of funding prevented the state from acquiring key property along the route. The land was developed over time, as home builders and owners believed they didn’t have to worry about a freeway to be built in some distant future.
That future arrived with the 2004 renewal of a countywide sales tax for transportation. But an estimated 225 homes now stand in the way, dramatically increasing the cost to taxpayers to move ahead.
Many Ahwatukee Foothills residents are demanding the freeway route be moved south onto largely vacant land of the Gila River Indian Community. Tribal Gov. William Rhodes would like a public vote on the idea. But so far, other community leaders have invoked the tribe’s sovereign right to ignore Arizona’s request to negotiate alternatives.
Gila River leaders should consider what happened when Loop 101 was planned for Scottsdale in the late 1980s, and soften their hard-line stand. The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community was able to get fair compensation for shifting that freeway onto its land immediately to the east of that city, and today the tribe controls all sides of several freeway exits for future economic growth.
The state might not be able to afford what Gila River would require to take on Ahwatukee Foothills’ burden. But we won’t know want to expect until Gila River sits down with ADOT to seriously talk about some ideas.