The Arizona Republic
Feb. 4, 2005 12:00 AM
But the community is, indeed, witnessing one of the longest U-turns in modern history.
Trying to decide where to build a portion of the South Mountain Freeway near the southern border of Ahwatukee Foothills has rolled around the great curve and is back to the starting line after 17 years of debate.
The Arizona Department of Transportation, which will determine the
freeway's path, says the life story of this controversy - a saga of $29
million spent for unused rights-of-way and missed opportunities to nail
down a freeway alignment - is not significant because the agency has
started the selection process over.
"The history on this is pretty much irrelevant," said Matthew Burdick, a Transportation Department spokesman. "We are doing a brand new environmental impact statement."
History, nevertheless, puts this old battle in perspective.
In 1990, a rift peaked between ADOT and the Indian community. The Transportation Department rejected claims by tribal leaders that it would be easier and much cheaper to build the freeway on flat Indian community land rather than through a mountainous area.
The reservation alignment was about two miles south of Pecos Road where ADOT wanted the road built. The Pecos alignment had been selected by the Maricopa Association of Governments, a council composed of elected municipal and county officials in the metropolitan area and ADOT. The Pecos alignment, MAG officials noted, passed a 1988 environmental impact study.
As expected, ADOT adopted Pecos even though tribal leaders and some ADOT officials estimated that building the freeway on the reservation would save taxpayers millions of dollars. Tribal leaders said in 1990 that building a two-mile portion of the freeway across a portion of the reservation at a cost of $57 million would be far cheaper than building it along Pecos.
Costs to build the entire 22-mile freeway, from I-10 south of South Mountain to the west Valley, have been estimated at $1.1 billion, Burdick said.
MAG officials noted at the time that the Indian community freeway alignment seemed too remote from Ahwatukee Foothills and south Phoenix despite rapid growth in the area.
"It was a big mistake," Nathaniel Percharo, an Indian community leader, recalled Tuesday of ADOT's failure to hammer out an agreement with tribal leaders for a freeway alignment on the reservation. "Because everybody at that time was ready to go."
"I remember meeting with the landowners and I got the impression that if the road were kept along the Pecos alignment they (state officials) thought they would get a lot more dollars by having an alignment for shopping centers," Percharo added. "They didn't think at the time that it would turn out to be a residential area. They thought it was going to be commercial."
Two ADOT officials openly shared his opinion in March 1990 during the height of the freeway alignment dispute.
Bob Helmandollar, the then chief right-of-way agent for the department, said, "It would have been easier and a lot cheaper to put the road through the reservation. But it didn't happen because the Indians would have gotten all the benefits instead of the Anglo-Saxon developers."
Percharo is still one of the voices to be reckoned with in the quest for the freeway to swing through a 1 1/2-mile to two-mile portion of the reservation. He is chairman of the I-10 Pecos Landowners Association that represents about 600 Gila River Indian Community members with land along the proposed alignment.
Today, he said, the Gila River Indian Community is no longer perceived as a minor player in the debate.
Phoenix Councilman Greg Stanton, whose 6th district covers Ahwatukee Foothills, is very vocal in his opposition to building along Pecos.
"Development has been built up into that right-of-way," he said. "We are working with the Indian community to determine if there are alternatives on tribal lands that would be acceptable to include in the new study."
Which means we're back at Square 1.
Reach Thomason at firstname.lastname@example.org or (602) 444-7971.