Environmental, Economic Concerns Over Proposed Arizona Interstate 11

By Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services
Published: Monday, October 14, 2019 - 8:21am
Updated: Monday, October 14, 2019 - 8:44am

Proposed I-11 Routes
The proposed routes for Interstate 11, an interstate highway that would link Nogales to Wickenburg, and eventually Las Vegas.

A proposed new highway from Nogales to Wickenburg — and eventually beyond to Kingman — has united a Republican legislator and environmental interests in opposition, albeit for different reasons.

Rep. Mark Finchem (R-Oro Valley) questions the wisdom of the state constructing hundreds of miles of new freeway when he says it can't even take care of the roads it already has. He said there are far better alternatives for moving freight from Mexico to Canada and back, especially rail.

The Center for Biological Diversity finds little justification for constructing 280 miles of new road — some of it through environmentally sensitive areas — when the real demand to reduce traffic congestion is in the urban areas. Randy Serraglio, southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, says the money would be better spent improving mass transportation.

Both views are contrary to those of Gov. Doug Ducey who has emerged as one of the leading proponents of the south half of the project which, depending on the final path, could cost anywhere from $3.1 billion to $7.3 billion.

Ducey sees this stretch of new road as part of what would eventually run through Kingman by upgrading U.S. 93 to interstate standards, ultimately connecting with an existing stretch of I-11 that already has been built in Nevada. More to the point, the governor envisions this as the next great international highway facilitating trade among Mexico, the United State and Canada, moving some of the traffic that now goes through California.

"So it's a long-term, something that will really benefit our state and allow us to be the player that we're going to be in terms of economic growth and development and trade,'' he said.

That's also what's behind the backing of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

"We believe that Arizona's future as a logistics hub is a bright one with the growth of cargo trade,'' said chamber spokesman Garrick Taylor, much of that linked to eventual ratification of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement. "We need to be sure we have the infrastructure in place to accommodate that trade.''

On a local level, the proposal has other boosters, like officials from the city of Maricopa who believe that a new interstate highway on the edge of the community will translate to economic development.

Dale Wiebusch figures that once there is a highway that distribution centers will spring up around it, similar to the warehouses that have sprouted along the western edge of Interstate 10 in Phoenix. He said Maricopa could become the gateway for moving items from I-11 to Casa Grande and the East Valley cities of Maricopa County, suggesting it would become "an inland port.''

The plan also has the backing of the town of Marana. But at least part of the issue there is the suggested alternative by Finchem and others of simply widening I-10.

"In the '60s, Marana’s downtown was displaced by the creation of I-10,'' explained Town Manager Jamsheed Mehta. "Any further widening further widening of the existing alignment could be detrimental to our community.''

Mehta said the town also believes that the return on the financial investment of a new highway is greater than simply widening a existing one. And he said a new highway, properly planned, could avoid the historic, archaeological and environmentally sensitive areas throughout Southern Arizona.

That's not the view of the Tucson City Council which voted earlier this year to oppose the project, at least in part because of the proposed path that would run west of the city and through Avra Valley. The council resolution said the highway would conflict with the city's own priorities including protecting open space, dark skies and wildlife corridors.

Pima County's position is a bit more complex and nuanced.

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry says the county will oppose plans to construct the new freeway, or widen I-10, if planners don’t effectively mitigate the risks to dark skies and wildlife migration corridors.

"The route through Avra Valley has a lot of environmental, cultural and historical impact," said Huckelberry. "There's some minimal mitigation standards that if they don't reach those standards and provide that level of mitigation, which is above the standard normal for transportation, we will oppose either alignment."

The proposed interstate is touted as a reliever for truck traffic, which environmental groups say is unnecessary because a bypass route around Phoenix would be as effective with less environmental risk.

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