Editor’s note: This is part one of a continuing summer series on the proposed South Mountain Loop 202 Freeway.
Thirty years ago dotted lines for planned freeways were drawn on a map of Arizona and the future of Ahwatukee Foothills has remained unknown ever since.
The Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) began planning studies to identify corridors for a freeway network in 1983. In a special election in October of 1985 Maricopa County voters set up a trust fund for land acquisition and construction of the region’s freeways. Among a list of 13 freeways and expressways the Southwest Loop was mentioned.
There was awareness of a possible freeway in the ’90s, but Ahwatukee was steadily growing.
“There’s always been a discussion about the freeway,” said City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who has been in Ahwatukee since 1986 and was on the Phoenix City Council from 1994 to early 2000. “At the time there were maybe 30,000 people out here and one street light. It really didn’t start gelling together until the mid-1990s.”
The Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) had some funding shortfalls in 1994 and the South Mountain corridor was listed as “unfunded.” In 1996 some private companies proposed building the South Mountain Freeway as a toll road, and even studied two alignments on the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) land, according to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), recently released by the ADOT. The proposal was ultimately withdrawn.
In 2000, efforts to build the freeway began again. The South Mountain Citizens Advisory Team was formed by ADOT with local stakeholders. The group was brought together to gain input, but the team was told it would not be a decision-making body.
While ADOT was moving forward with public input efforts and meeting with elected officials, the GRIC District 6 Executive Committee initiated community action to oppose the development and study of a freeway on tribal land. Their action was sent to tribal council as a resolution and ratified as GR-126-00.
“The Community Council concluded by strongly opposing any future alignment on Community land,” the DEIS says.
ADOT mentions five phases of public input gathering in the DEIS, which began in 2001.
Twenty-three public meetings were held in late 2001 and early 2002, 10 of which were in Ahwatukee Foothills. Those meetings and comments from 600 people who attended them helped ADOT determine there was a need for a freeway.
At a public meeting in Ahwatukee in 2003 almost 40 comments were received opposing the Pecos Road Alignment. Twenty-five respondents mentioned choosing to live in Ahwatukee because of the freeway. Forty-six comments asked ADOT to consider alternatives further south of Pecos Road.
In 2005, more than 2,100 people registered attendance at an ADOT meeting at the Grace Inn in Ahwatukee. The meeting was the largest-ever ADOT-hosted meeting. Comments listed in the DEIS say the pubic in Ahwatukee Foothills supported the freeway to relieve traffic congestion, but opposed it for the effects it would have on South Mountain. Some written comments pointed out that the South Mountain Freeway would be nothing more than a truck bypass.
Greta Rogers, a longtime resident of Ahwatukee Foothills and founding member of Protecting Arizona’s Resources and Children (PARC), a nonprofit aiming to keep the freeway off Pecos Road, said the meetings ADOT held were always hostile.
“They (MAG and ADOT) were as welcome as sour cream on your cereal,” Rogers said. “The meetings were packed because people were concerned.”
PARC was officially formed in 2006. There were rumors of a DEIS being completed in 2005 or 2006, but it was never released for public comment.
GRIC early involvement
ADOT claims the tribal community has been involved as early as 1986. After GR-126-00 was ratified the state continued to approach the tribe about studying alternatives on its land. In 2004, District 6 allowed the state to study the effects the Pecos Road Alignment would have on tribal land. The tribe allowed similar studies to be done in 2007.
DiCiccio said there were always trust issues between the state and the tribal community. Those concerns are documented in the DEIS.
“When the original freeway was built, the I-10, they don’t know what happened with a lot of the funds or what occurred,” DiCiccio said. “There were a lot of promises made by the state of Arizona that were never fulfilled. The tribal community had a lot of reason to be cautious and concerned about future negotiations with the state.”
In 2005, DiCiccio said he was approached by the state of Arizona and then-Councilman Greg Stanton, and hired to approach the tribe about freeway alternatives. He said a proposal was written but it went nowhere.
“That was a level of frustration for me,” DiCiccio said. “There was an incredible amount of work that went into putting something together. The state was more focused on Interstate 10. I was more focused on getting the freeway off Pecos Road… I’ve always known I could help our community on this issue.”
The tribal council reaffirmed resolution GR-126-00 in 2005, opposing any study of a freeway alternative on community land.
DiCiccio has taken some criticism for his involvement in the freeway issue. In 2007, while he was not serving on the Phoenix City Council, DiCiccio acquired a lease-hold on 75 acres of land at 40th Street and Pecos Road on the GRIC.
“The (plan for the) freeway was already there,” he said. “If the freeway is on the north it’s still there. If it’s on the south, it’s still there. It doesn’t matter. I like the idea of the freeway never being built. It doesn’t become a benefit either way.”
DiCiccio said his company, Zenith Development of Arizona, is involved with a group of investors on that property. The group plans to develop the land eventually and is looking into possibly putting a small hospital at that location, though those plans are a long way away from happening.
While many wonder about DiCiccio’s involvement with that land — the issue was brought up by his opponent for City Council, Karlene Keogh Parks, at a recent PARC meeting — DiCiccio said he has no plans to end his involvement.
“I had a great working relationship with a lot of members of the tribe in the past,” he said. “I enjoyed working with them and they enjoyed working with me. It’s a long process. It took us almost seven years to put that together.”
In 2009, DiCiccio was voted back on to the City Council. He said at that time the freeway issue was so divisive he decided he could either do nothing or get involved, and knowing what he knew from earlier dealings he decided to get involved.
DiCiccio brought together community members from both sides of the issue, many of whom are now serving on the Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning Committee or are still active in the issue. Some wanted no freeway at all, others wanted the freeway down Pecos. The compromise the group came to was to support the freeway as long as it was built south of Pecos Road.
During one of the meetings DiCiccio said a member of the tribe stood up and said the tribe had never received a proposal from the state.
In 2010, GRIC Gov. William R. Rhodes sent a letter to ADOT stating that the tribe would assist the state in conducting a study of an on-reservation freeway, though the tribe’s official stance supported a “No build” option.
ADOT responded to that letter with environmental and engineering documents that the tribe presented to the community in 15 public meetings. In July of 2011, the tribal council approved a resolution for the community to vote on whether or not to allow an on-community alignment.
A “No build” option was also added to that vote and ultimately won when the vote took place in February of 2012. Since that time, ADOT has decided not to study an on-community alignment, though some tribal members continue to fight for the possibility.
ADOT recently released a DEIS about the South Mountain Freeway listing the Pecos Road Alignment as the proposed alignment. The AFN will be taking a deeper look at this project through a series of articles this summer.
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