Gila River Community to vote on South Mountain freeway

by Allie Seligman – Jan. 2, 2012 10:39 PM
The Republic |

Residents of the Gila River Indian Community will vote Feb. 7 on whether to allow the controversial South Mountain Freeway extension on tribal land.

While a favorable vote on relocation wouldn’t necessarily guarantee the freeway would be put there, the vote offers likely the last best hope to Ahwatukee Foothills opponents of the project, as well as to tribal leaders who contend the currently proposed freeway path would damage sacred land.

The vote also would likely bring some finality to planning a project that was first proposed in 1985.

Current plans for the $1.9 billion extension of Loop 202 would link west Phoenix to Chandler with a 22-mile, eight-lane freeway along Pecos Road.

The freeway would take out a church and more than 100 homes in Ahwatukee. It would also cut through three ridges in the South Mountain preserve, which are religiously and culturally significant to the Gila River tribe.

The reservation alignment would be on flat, undeveloped land and would not require the destruction of mountains or buildings.

However, the state would have to negotiate to obtain several privately owned tracts of land along that route.

The Gila River Tribal Council in July voted to set a date for the election, and has since been developing the ballot language. Voters will be able to go to their local polling place or use a mail ballot, Gila River spokeswoman Alia Maisonet said.

The vote would culminate a two-year effort to relocate the freeway path that began when Phoenix city Councilman Sal DiCiccio, whose district includes Ahwatukee, put together a committee of both local opponents and proponents.

“For the first time in 10 years, our community came together on a single plan,” he said. That plan was to get the state and the Gila River community talking about shifting the freeway to tribal land.

In February 2010, Gov. Jan Brewer urged the Arizona Department of Transportation and the Maricopa Association of Governments to work with the Gila River Indian Community to come up with a plan to build on tribal land.

“I’m just glad we were able to do what we promised we could do and get people talking,” he said.

Bob Hazlett, senior engineer and manager for the Maricopa Association of Governments, said if the tribe votes to oppose relocation, the plans for building it along Pecos Road would go to public hearings sometime this year.

“Obviously if the Gila River Indian Community … says yes, they would like to have the alignment on community land, then of course that would change that schedule around,” he said.

If residents vote in favor of relocation, he said, it would take six months to a year to modify the current environmental-impact statement. That required statement analyzes 26 factors, including air quality, cultural resources and wildlife.

The statement would then be put out for public review, amended to include any pertinent feedback and reviewed again, Hazlett said.

After the federal government approves the impact statement and construction plans, the design will take another 18 months to two years to complete, he said.

“Assuming everything moves along at a pretty good clip,” Hazlett said, the earliest construction could start is late 2014 and could take four to five years to complete.

A relocated freeway path likely would run south from 51st Avenue in Phoenix past Pecos Road.

It would connect with the eastern edge of Loop 202, just past 48th Street and Pecos Road, with exits at 51st Avenue, 17th Avenue, Desert Foothills Parkway, 24th Street and 40th Street.

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