Environmental Groups Sue over HWY 11 Route near Picacho Park


PHOENIX — Gov. Katie Hobbs won’t use her power to direct the state Department of Transportation to scrap a proposal that could put a new interstate highway next to Tucson Mountain Park and through a special corridor set up to ensure wildlife migration.

The governor told Capitol Media Services she is not surprised that environmental groups have taken the state to court over plans for Interstate 11 — and, specifically a controversial option on where to build a segment.

“Every project is battling environmental groups,” she said.

“We have to balance progress and sustainability,” the governor said following the announcement of a new Canada trade office in Arizona. The road is supposed to be part of a new link through the state between Mexico and Canada. “And we’re working really hard to do that.”

But Hobbs balked when it was pointed out that ADOT continues to include that alternative west of Tucson, through the Avra Valley, when there is another option that doesn’t involve a new highway through the area: co-locate I-11 along existing stretches of Interstates 10 and 19.

“I can get back with you with more specifics on it,” the governor promised.

She never did. Instead, her press office directed ADOT to send out a response about the work being done and how that option through Avra Valley was — and remains — in the plan

“Carrying both a west and an east option forward allows ADOT to make a more informed decision after completing detailed environmental and engineering studies in Tier 2,” the next phase of the plan. But beyond that, the agency said it cannot comment “due to ongoing litigation.”

For the moment, that leaves in place the decisions about building the road that had been blessed by her predecessor, Doug Ducey, who had been a supporter of the highway.

He told Capitol Media Services at the time that the highway would “really benefit our state and allow us to be the player that we’re going to be in terms of economic growth and development in trade.”

But that doesn’t leave Hobbs powerless.
The decisions, including that option through Avra Valley, was made under John Halikowski who was the ADOT director.

Hobbs, on taking office last year, replaced him with Jennifer Toth. And that gives her the power to tell the agency to either scrap that option or at least reconsider it before the project moves forward — or before the lawsuit goes to trial. But that isn’t going to happen.

“She’s fine with letting the process play out,” said gubernatorial press aide Christian Slater.

But time for gubernatorial intervention may be running out: The latest maps from ADOT show a route through Avra Valley as the “recommended alternative,” though the agency insists that no final decision has been made.

The lawsuit, filed in 2022, asks U.S. District Court Judge John Hinderaker to quash or at least modify a proposal by ADOT to construct I-11 from Nogales to past Phoenix. The eventual plan is to have the highway hook up with an existing stretch of I-11 that already has been built in Nevada.

The Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Friends of Ironwood Forest, and the Tucson Audubon Society filed suit, contending that the Federal Highway Administration, which is handling the project for ADOT, ignored better alternatives to the path through the Avra Valley.
One option that ADOT started with, in essence, is to co-locate I-11 along existing stretches of I-19 and I-10, at least through the area of Picacho Peak. At that point, a new highway would be built to the north and west.

But there also is the option — the one ADOT lists as recommended one — that parts ways with I-19 north of Green Valley, with the road then heading west around the San Xavier Reservation and then cutting north near Tucson Mountain Park and Saguaro National Park.

It also runs directly through what’s known as the Tucson Mitigation Corridor.

That corridor is not new. It actually was goes as far back as the 1980s as part of the development of the Tucson leg of the Central Arizona Project.

Part of the reason for its creation was to minimize disruption to wildlife during aqueduct construction. But it also prohibits future development in the 4.25 square mile area to “preserve this fragile desert habitat from urbanization and maintain an open wildlife movement corridor.”

ADOT and the Federal Highway Administration, which is providing funding, are fighting opposition.

They already have tried to get the lawsuit thrown out of court without having to go to trial. They argued that litigation is premature and that no final decisions have been made on exactly where to place the new road.

But the judge handling the lawsuit in federal court refused, saying that’s not what the evidence shows.
Hindeaker said it is clear that the Federal Highway Administration, which makes the initial determination, already concluded that neither the Ironwood Forest or Sonoran Desert national monuments qualified for special consideration under federal law that would require it to study whether the highway should be placed elsewhere. And he said there was no analysis done on the ecological impacts to Saguaro National Park or Tucson Mountain Park based on the agency’s conclusion that neither property was a wildlife or waterfowl refuge.

Problems continued even after initial review, Hindeaker said.

He said that documents show that properties ADOT and the Federal Highway Administration had designated as not being entitled to protection as highway placement determinations are made actually “kept their unprotected designations even after feedback from the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and Arizona Game and Fish, among others,” all of which had concerns.

What makes all that relevant, the judge said, is that it appears that some decisions actually already have been made despite protestations to the contrary from the state and feds.

“By not designated certain properties as protected or unprotected under (the federal law), defendants finalized certain legal obligations, or lack thereof,” Hinderaker wrote.

In fact, the judge said, the evidence appears to show that the Federal Highway Administration foreclosed any alternatives outside the corridor unless new conditions arise. And he said the formal “Record of Decision” by the agency “seems to acknowledge that the project, and the selected alternative corridor, will move forward notwithstanding objections from agencies following the draft and final environmental impact statements.”

All that, he said, entitles the legal challenge to the route to go forward now, before there is a final decision.

That, however, still leaves the option for Hobbs to simply tell ADOT that at least part of the plan — the option to put the road adjacent to Tucson Mountan Park, through the mitigation corridor and through Avra Valley — should be taken off the table.

That is what is being urged by Wendy Park, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“ADOT has proposed I-11 to be constructed alongside Saguaro National Park and two national monuments,” she said. “That should enrage every Arizonan.”

The problem, she told Capitol Media Services, is that the state’s transportation system “is stuck in a rut,” planning $10 billion projects like this she said would simply encourage urban sprawl “that would worsen climate pollution and groundwater depletion while lining the pockets of the rich real estate developers that have driven the project.”

And that, Park said, is where the current governor could play a role.

“To get out of that rut we need leaders like Gov. Hobbs to push divestment from pollution highways and increase investment in green transportation infrastructure that integrates multimodal transportation systems,” she said, a term that includes everything from rail to public transit.

Slater said the governor had no comment on what Park said.

It isn’t just the options of where the road is located in Southern Arizona that are at issue.

Park said a stretch between Casa Grande and Buckeye also would affect recreation areas as well as habitats for various endangered species. And she said there also would be environmental effects from the final stretch from Buckeye to Wickenburg.

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