(Source: WestValleyNews): Paul Maryniak – The Arizona Department of Transportation and Connect202Partners are beginning one of the most controversial phases of the South Mountain Freeway project.
ADOT recently announced crews are setting the stage for construction of the freeway’s 3-mile “central segment” through the southwestern edge of South Mountain Park.
The eight-lane highway will require Connect202Partners, the consortium of companies that is designing and building the freeway, to cut a 200-foot-wide swath across three peaks.
That plan has been vehemently opposed by the Gila River Indian Community and nearly two dozen Southwestern U.S. tribes because Native Americans consider South Mountain a sacred site.
However, the tribes failed to convince federal courts that highway planners had not conducted sufficient study to avoid what Native Americans called the desecration of the mountain, which they call “Muhadagi doag.”
The 22-mile freeway is envisioned as a detour around I-10’s heavily congested Horseshoe Curve and downtown Phoenix by connecting the 59th Avenue and Chandler interchanges on the interstate.
The $1.7-billion freeway – the most expensive highway project in state history – is scheduled to be completed near the end of next year.
The initial work signals an acceleration of the project. Up till now, crews have been focusing on three of the four segments of the freeway and ADOT has consistently said work on the central portion would not begin until the middle of this year.
For now, ADOT said, “crews have already started creating right-of-way fencing and surveying to identify and tag trees and cactuses in the path of construction that are good candidates for salvage.
“Over the next few months, hundreds of plants that eventually will be replanted along the freeway will be removed and placed in a temporary nursery,” it added.
Crews with heavy equipment have already started examining the condition of soil and rock and the depth of groundwater in the central segment.
“These geotechnical investigations, which occur on every freeway expansion project, allow engineers to plan for pavement, bridges, walls and drainage structures,” ADOT said.
Part of the work also requires construction of temporary access roads over the next few months so that work crews can reach the intended path of the freeway through South Mountain.
ADOT also said that controlled blasting will begin in May along two ridges “to break large rock into smaller, more manageable pieces as crews create a path for the freeway.”
It also said periodic traffic restrictions are anticipated on 51st Avenue, Dusty Lane and Ivanhoe Street in Phoenix.
Gila Community opponents of the freeway two years ago vowed to try to stop construction in the area even if they had to lay down in the path of bulldozers.
But those opponents have been noticeably absent from public view even as a federal appeals court rejected tribal efforts to halt the project.
Long before the court fight even began, ADOT devoted considerable attention to the sensitive issue of how the freeway would affect South Mountain.
In its lengthy environmental impact study, the agency admitted, “The South Mountains are highly valued by Native American communities,” noting that most Native American tribes “consider the South Mountains sacred, playing a role in their culture, identity, history, and oral traditions.”
The impact study even acknowledged that the freeway “might be perceived as severing the community’s spiritual connection to the mountains.”
ADOT insisted during the court fight that “the project will affect a minute fraction of Phoenix South Mountain,” noting that the freeway will occupy “just 0.2 percent of the area’s 16,600 acres” and that it “incorporates multiple measures to minimize impacts.”
“Measures to minimize harm to the South Mountains resources were determined through direct coordination with resource owners, agencies with jurisdiction, and with other stakeholders and users,” the impact study said.
ADOT conceded in the study, “The intrusion of the proposed freeway into the South Mountains, including especially the cuts into three ridgelines, would likely be perceived as severe by many members of the Community.”
It said “several measures were analyzed to entirely avoid or further reduce impacts associated with the cuts through the three ridgelines,” including two located within the South Mountain Preserve.
But it said that “after careful deliberation, these measures were dropped from further consideration.”
The two measures most studied involved tunneling beneath the mountains or erecting bridges over the area.
But two alternative bridge studies showed the spans would cost either $232 million, or 21 percent of the project’s total construction cost, or $323 million, 29 percent of the project’s total cost.
Those plans “were determined to not be prudent,” the impact study said.
Other problems were foreseen as well.
“The bridge alternatives would increase visual impacts for views from the South Mountains to adjacent land and from adjacent land to the South Mountains,” the study said.
A bridge also “could result in hazardous materials restrictions along the entire proposed action. Therefore, hazardous cargo carriers would have to continue to use existing routes.”
Driver safety also was a consideration, ADOT said, “because the bridge height and length and steepness of the grades would be unique to an urban freeway in the Phoenix area.”
Moreover, if there was an accident, steep grades and the distance would hamper rescue efforts.
The study also noted that bridges would “require drilling and blasting for the numerous pier foundations, which would result in permanent scarring and excavation of the ridges.”
The study said also nixed tunnels, noting the expense that would result from “necessary bridges, cut slopes for the tunnel entrances, retaining walls, fill slopes for the approaches, and potential ventilation.”
“Costs to maintain and operate the tunnel – estimated to be between $1.5 million and $2 million a year – are not prudent, ADOT said. “Costs include full-time staffing of ventilation buildings, major equipment repairs, and tunnel rehabilitation.”
Instead, the study listed “other measures to minimize the alteration of the” South Mountain landscape.
“Because of the potential for the ridgeline cuts to introduce forms, lines, colors, and textures distinctly different from the existing ridgelines, design measures would be implemented to blend the appearance of the cuts with the surrounding natural environment, as feasible,” it said.
The study said ADOT will work with the Phoenix City Manager’s office “on behalf of the Sonoran Preserve Advisory Committee, Phoenix Parks and Recreation Board, and Phoenix Mountains Preservation Council.
The goal will be “establishing a slope treatment plan for cut slopes through the ridgelines, with the clear intent to blend as well as would be possible the cut slopes with the South Mountains’ natural setting.”
While South Mountain Park “has a system of paved roads used for internal circulation and access to the education center, ranger station, scenic lookouts, and other park amenities,” ADOT conceded the freeway “would introduce another intensive human-made use into another wise passive, natural setting.”
The study identified scores of plants and creatures that would be affected by the freeway.
It also noted that while the affected area has no trails, “uncontrolled access to the park does occur” as the result of hikers, equestrians and Native Americans who use it.