Federal, state and local agencies have serious reservations about the environmental impact of a proposed 280-mile highway planned for mostly undisturbed sections of the Sonoran Desert.
The proposed Interstate 11 route that would run between Nogales and Wickenburg — along with a second proposal to build a route connecting Interstate 19, the Tucson International Airport and Interstate 10 — is deeply rooted in economic reasons to build the last leg of the Canamex trade corridor linking Mexico and Canada.
A draft environmental impact study, recently released by the Arizona Department of Transportation, is a collection of comments sought by the state agency over the last few years as part of a Phase 1 environmental impact study.
Critics say the interstate is unnecessary and are pushing ADOT to consider a no-build option.
Tucson-area leaders see a number of economic reasons for backing a new route, including increasing trade with Mexico and reducing congestion on Interstates 10 and 19 largely caused by semi-trucks.
However, concerns about wildlife and the environment largely dominate the report, partially made up of correspondence between stakeholder groups and comments made during public meetings.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department, for example, noted that a new highway west of Interstate 10 would only further fragment wildlife movement in the region. It also noted that in 2007, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission took a unanimous position of opposition to all routes for a similar I-10 bypass. A staffer pointed out that the current I-11 proposal again goes through the Avra Valley, as it did more than a decade earlier when it was known as the I-10 Phoenix-Tucson bypass study.
“The Department does not find the I-10 bypass … to be consistent with smart growth and sustainable planning principles. The vastness of Arizona’s undeveloped country, and its wildlife resources, must be recognized as one of our greatest assets for current and future generations,” wrote Joyce Francis of Arizona Game and Fish in a letter to ADOT.
The recommended route would also pass the western boundary of the 24,000-acre Saguaro National Park in the Tucson Mountain District, which was highlighted as a concern by the National Park Service. Officials are worried the route would encroach on the host of animals living in the remote area.
The impact of traffic noise and congestion was also cited as a concern.
“Nearly a million people come in specifically to see Saguaro National Park and some of the other attractions in the area,” said Andy Fisher, public information officer at the park. “So we would definitely want to preserve that character if we can.”
John Moffatt, the director of the Pima County Economic Development Office, said increased trade is the top reason Pima County and other jurisdictions in Southern Arizona are supporting Interstate 11.
Commercial traffic through the Nogales port, he says, is growing on average by 3% a year.
The ports of entry in Nogales can handle 4,000 trucks a day, but it puts a burden on Southern Arizona freeways, which, he says, ADOT acknowledges are quickly reaching their capacity.
“They did a study in 2008 that indicated that the current freeway through downtown, the expanded one, will by 2030 reach what they call service Level F — which is failing or a parking lot,” Moffatt said.
Officials worry that as traffic increases, so will wait times at the ports of entry.
Truckers in Mexico may eventually choose to drive through ports in Texas if delays in Nogales increase over time.
“Truckers are like water, they find the least-resistant path,” Moffatt said.
Moving trucks to a different route that avoids downtown Tucson will help cut down on congestion in general.
“It is not just about trucking,” he said. “From an economic development standpoint, we don’t want Level F because (companies looking to relocate to Southern Arizona) look at that.”
Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said the City Council is supportive of the Interstate 11 proposal ideologically, although the current route is a cause for concern.
“It looks like the proposed route goes right through our water system in Avra Valley; that is a problem,” Rothschild said.
The city’s water department has purchased a number of retired farm properties in Avra Valley, specifically for their water rights, but a new freeway could complicate water delivery.
Officials also have concerns about Interstate 11 diverting truckers, as well as potential visitors, from Mexico away from Tucson, City Manager Mike Ortega wrote in a letter to ADOT.
“Potential negative impacts to the city include loss of sales tax revenue from frontage hotels, restaurants and gas stations that cater to the trucking industry,” he wrote. “Additionally, there could be substantial loss of revenue from domestic and Mexican visitors who would then have an option to bypass the city of Tucson. Currently, visitors from Mexico spend nearly $1 billion in Tucson and Pima County each year. This accounts for more than 5% of the total taxable sales in Pima County, the majority of which occurs within the city of Tucson.”
Rothschild says he wants to bring ADOT before the City Council later this year and hold a public discussion on the local impact of Interstate 11.
Albert Lannon, a member of the Avra Valley Coalition, says the freeway would do serious damage to the community.
He argues that ADOT has largely ignored those living in Avra Valley and claims that the new highway would displace dozens of families.
But Laura Douglas, a spokeswoman for ADOT, says there is no plan for precisely where the highway would be built.
“It is far too early in the study in process to determine what homes would be impacted,” Douglas said.
A more in-depth environmental impact study, which has neither been authorized nor funded, would narrow the currently 2,000-foot-wide corridor down to 400 feet. That, she said, would help ADOT identify how many homes and businesses would be affected by the proposed highway.
“We are a long way away from determining the 400-foot corridor,” she said, suggesting no decision will be made until at least 2020.
Lannon said building a separate highway is unnecessary, arguing that portions of Interstate 10 can be widened and, in places where it cannot, like congested metro areas, ADOT can build a two-tiered highway system often referred to as a double-decker option.