Anyone with lingering doubts about the need to complete Loop 202, the South Mountain Freeway — along the edge of the South Mountains to connect the West Valley and East Valley — should have been on Interstate 10 in downtown Phoenix on Thursday.
Tribune partner ABC15 reported a truck full of watermelons and other fruits overturned and dumped its cargo all over the westbound lanes inside the Deck Park Tunnel early that afternoon, closing those lanes at 7th Street until they were reopened at 9 p.m.
During those long hours, traffic was backed up into east Phoenix past the Hohokam Expressway (State Route 143), about five miles, ABC15 reported.
Afternoon rush-hour commuters who sought to avoid that mess didn’t get much refuge on surface streets. Westbound traffic was backed up for blocks on arterials as far north as Camelback Road. A friend who was meeting a group of us at a bar near Camelback and Central after work said it took her several minutes to get there only from 12th Street, about a mile and a half.
Westbound traffic on I-10 and those surface streets is no picnic even when the freeway is open. Only a few years ago the majority of afternoon weekday traffic east of downtown Phoenix was headed toward the East Valley. Today it’s 180 degrees different, as it is westbound traffic backing up while eastbound vehicles travel more quickly, especially on the surface streets.
When the nation’s sixth-largest city has only two east-west freeways (the other is Loop 101 several miles north of I-10), thousands of people trying to get from employment centers in the East Valley to newly finished residential communities in the West Valley such as Avondale, Goodyear and Buckeye only have one freeway option.
This was one reason why the final leg of Loop 202 was planned a couple of decades ago. Growth at both ends of the Valley and the need for interstate traffic to bypass downtown was expected to create the need for another east-west route.
But we all know what’s been happening. The Arizona Department of Transportation is faced with opposition from each of the only two communities where the freeway can go: The Gila River Indian Community and the Ahwatukee Foothills region of southeast Phoenix.
The scenario is similar to what ADOT faced in the 1980s when it planned the route of Loop 101 near the border between Scottsdale and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. Ultimately, the entire route from McKellips Road to Via Linda was built on tribal land. Scottsdale homes were spared and a sound wall built to buffer some of the noise of the freeway a few hundred feet to the east.
Was the ultimate route a good deal for the Scottsdale homeowners? Depends on whom you ask; At the time, some tribal members and Scottsdale homeowners near the route welcomed the deal while others did not, which is what’s happening with Loop 202 today.
There are those living near the proposed freeway who oppose building it at all, but anyone pursuing that view has never seen I-10 and those east-west surface streets at rush hour. Interstate truck traffic is also clogging I-10 as truck drivers have no faster alternative to get through Phoenix.
ADOT is painfully aware of that situation and so is the Federal Highway Administration. These agencies will ultimately decide whether to fund, design and build the South Mountain Freeway.
If you’re new to the Valley, you may not know that for decades building freeways was ignored by Valley civic and government leaders, who believed that freeways attract cars — I’m not making that up — and they could minimize traffic by simply not building them.
Now, today someone espousing this view would be gently encouraged to get therapy. But it was enough to make sure that it wasn’t until 1985 that Arizona finally embarked on building a freeway system for greater Phoenix designed about 25 years earlier.
Freeway planning has been behind population growth here ever since. Those hoping that mass transit will someday replace the private automobile — whether it uses gasoline, electricity or hydrogen, they’ll still take up space on the roads — may be right, but that’s about 40 or 50 years into the future. Cars are here now and cars will be with us for decades to come.
The decision to build the South Mountain Freeway, wherever it will go, is going to be painful, because like years ago, it has to be made in a situation where people came first and the freeways second instead of the other way around. When we realize things like this, we’re going to be in a better place to live.