by Doug Murphy Staff Writer
Ahwatukee Foothills News, 10-15-03
If the South Mountain Freeway gets built, the only choices for the six-lane freeway is either on top of Pecos Road, through Ahwatukee Foothills, or somewhere south on the Gila River Indian Community.
Almost all supporters of the freeway suggest that building it on Indian land instead of on Pecos Road is the best choice for everyone.
They argue that a freeway from Interstate 10 and Pecos Road in Ahwatukee Foothills running west and then north to reconnect with the freeway in the West Valley is needed to facilitate the flow of traffic through the Valley.
They also suggest that off-ramps on Indian land would facilitate the flow of people and businesses, benefiting the Gila River Indian Community that desperately wants to create jobs and attract businesses to the land around its casino, resort and golf course south of Ahwatukee Foothills.
So why haven't the Indians jumped at the opportunity and demanded that the freeway be built on their land?
Indian community split on freeway
"It's a fine line between the benefits and the cost, and I can't say that there is a feeling one way or another (for a freeway)," according to Gary Bohnee, assistant to the Gila River Indian Community governor and spokesman for the community.
"It think it's fair to say the landowners (in the path of the freeway) would probably be more supportive because of the economic benefits, but on more traditional terms, a lot of community member's point of view is keeping the land as is, uninterrupted, in its natural state, knowing that there are already pollution problems and traffic problems," he explained.
The Gila River Indian Community's District 6 reversed itself in December 2002, and voted to allow the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) to study, for the first time in years, several possible freeway routes south of Ahwatukee Foothills.
ADOT is currently looking at three possible routes. Two were identified a decade ago by a private consortium looking at building a toll road. A third route was identified in 1998, and has been included in the Indian community's borderland development plan.
But the issues facing the Indian community are more complex than simply choosing whether to allow a freeway to be built on their land.
One issue that community members don't speak openly about is the religious and cultural significance of the land that a freeway would cross. South Mountain is sacred to the Gila River Indian Community and the area north and south of Pecos Road is important to the tribe.
"That area of the community, in the northern border, is very rich in cultural artifacts that mean a lot to some people in the community," Bohnee said.
Economic development priority for community
From a practical standpoint, the community has designed its economic development plan taking into consideration the likelihood that gaming may disappear one day, according to Gov. Richard Narcia, who took over Jan. 1, 2003.
To prepare for that possibility, the tribe has spent a significant amount of money on the land around the casino, resort and golf course for development as a business park aimed at high-end tenants and well-paying jobs.
"I'm talking about Microsoft or bigger operations to open their main office on our land," said Narcia, who was out of town and unavailable for comment, but expressed these goals of his in a March interview with Ahwatukee Foothills News.
The key to creating those jobs and developing that land is access.
Freeway not only transportation issue
Bohnee explained that whether to support a freeway and where to put it are not the only transportation questions facing the community.
"There are also other issues, such as the extension of 32nd Street, 40th Street and 48th Street south which our resort development group and the community have been behind. These things are a priority for the community," he said.
"While all these issues (freeways and streets) seem to be independent of one another, in some ways they are not. These are other parts of the equation that we will need to take a look at as well," when considering a possible Indian route for the Loop 202, he said.
The Ahwatukee Foothills Planning Committee and Stanton have opposed extending 48th Street south through Pecos Park as a major arterial street.
In March, Narcia announced that the Indian community is "willing to work with Ahwatukee Foothills to resolve this, because it can be beneficial for both of us."
No one on the Gila River Indian Community has said that access to 48th Street is a prerequisite for allowing the freeway on Indian land, but Narcia has made it clear that access, especially by 48th Street is something that they have counted on.
"Yes, we need 48th Street. That's always been something that we felt we need to have," Narcia said.
Stanton has said repeatedly that he will support local residents who oppose the freeway being built on Pecos Road.
"Pecos Road is not appropriate for a freeway," the Phoenix vice mayor said at a public meeting discussing possible freeway routes on Oct. 1.
But elected Gila River Indian Community officials also support their constituents who oppose the freeway on Indian land.
"The way it works here, on the reservation, the districts and the people have the final say in this," Narcia said in March.
"Whether or not it will be done, will hinge on District 6 and how their residents feel about this."
The reporter can be reached at (480) 898-7914 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.