Sahuarita residents opposed to a plan that could bring an interstate through the west part of town say they're having a tough time getting the attention of local leaders and want the community to have a bigger voice in the decision.
The plan, which likely wouldn't come to fruition for 20 years, if ever, would connect the proposed Interstate 11 with I-19 at El Toro Road just north of Anamax Park. It would be part of a highway system connecting Mexico to Canada.
Jan McClellan and Dorian Dodson live within the recommended corridor's path in Sahuarita, west of I-19, and represent a group not happy with what they see as a lack of transparency on the part of the town and a failure to publicly engage with residents who are concerned about what the new interstate would do to Sahuarita and Southern Arizona.
Farther north, the plan also is meeting with opposition. During a May 8 public hearing in Tucson, groups from Avra Valley showed up to voice their opposition. Like the Sahuarita residents, the recommended corridor would pass through the rural community and residents are worried it would permanently alter their way of life.
The I-11 corridor
The recommended corridor is a 2,000 foot-wide study area stretching from Nogales to Wickenburg. The I-11 project is part of the Canamex corridor that would open a transportation route from Mexico to Canada and is intended to facilitate trade among the three countries. At times, the route would share an existing road, such as I-19 south of Sahuarita.
The Tier One study is in its final stages with public comments being collected before the Arizona Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration makes a final decision. That decision is whether to use the current recommended route as the preferred route or not build at all. The public comment period ends July 8.
A future Tier Two study would reduce the 2,000 foot-wide corridor to a 400-foot roadway. There is currently no funding or timeline for that study. Any potential construction would not occur for decades and would only begin if or when a need for more highways was determined.
ADOT held six public hearings earlier this year — Buckeye, Wickenburg, Casa Grande, Marana, Tucson and Nogales — and added what it called an "information session" in Green Valley. ADOT spokeswoman Laura Douglas did not specifically address repeated questions about why a hearing was not held in Sahuarita, which would be directly affected by the proposal.
McClellan has been a Sahuarita resident for 17 years, Dodson has lived here two years. Both think now is the time to take action, while the route is being determined.
Their group of residents is concerned with the impact a new interstate would have on the desert scenery and wildlife in the open area west of Tucson and the effects on Sahuarita.
Dodson said the corridor will transform the town from a unique and special community and turn it into another town with freeways cutting through it that bring problems of their own.
"Which includes more gas stations, more business that cater to truckers and other people transporting goods as opposed to catering to people who are enjoying the lifestyle and a very lovely community that is oriented towards family, towards nature, towards culture and will turn it into another town along the freeway," Dodson said. "And we've all seen what those look like."
Mayor Tom Murphy favors the proposed interstate because he said it's important to stay ahead of growing needs.
Murphy pointed to how roadwork on I-19 sometimes leaves a single lane open, causing delays and congestion. Fast forward to 2040 or 2045, and with population and traffic increases, the problem grows, he said.
"I don't think the no-build alternative would be the correct way to go," Murphy said. "Just getting behind on transportation corridors, I just don't think as a country or a region we always do a great job keeping up in front of what the needs are until it kind of hits a crisis point. I also think it's important to have the least amount of impact."
McClellan is worried that putting a freeway through the west side of town would damage a long-established part of Sahuarita, and farther north.
"To run a freeway through would add noise, light, emission pollution to not just the people whose homes may be affected by having to clear it, but also those surrounding the area for quite a distance," she said. "We're concerned also where that route goes in terms of when it goes over through the beautiful desert areas of the Saguaro National Park, the Desert Museum, the Ironwood Forest National Monument. All of those are areas of concern too because we love those areas."
Murphy said that while impacts should be minimized, change is nevertheless inevitable.
"We're celebrating our 25th year incorporating as a town and that was almost a 50-50 split at the time," Murphy said of the public vote to take that step. "It's always a tough call because roads will change a community. How we are at 30,000 (population) is obviously different from how we were at 2,000 people around incorporation time, but I think we've done a good job working with our partners to manage that growth and I wouldn't see this as any different."
Residents want action
McClellan and Dodson said they have been trying to arrange a meeting with the town with no luck.
McClellan tried to have I-11 added to the Town Council's May 28 agenda but was unsuccessful. Town Manager Kelly Udall contacted her to arrange a meeting but it didn't happen because of a scheduling conflict. McClellan, Dodson and two others attended the May 28 council meeting and voiced their concerns during call to the public.
Another meeting with Udall, Murphy, the town engineer and Jay Van Echo, ADOT's project manager for I-11, was scheduled for June 11. It was later canceled and conflicting reasons were given. A Sahuarita spokesman said ADOT canceled over "timing conflicts." ADOT told the Green Valley News the meeting was canceled because it was intended to be between town officials and ADOT without members of the public present. The meeting was canceled shortly after McClellan, who was invited by the town to attend, asked ADOT to allow a reporter from the Green Valley News to be present.
After the June 10 Town Council meeting, McClellan and Dodson said they asked Udall again to hold a meeting for residents to speak with the town and have their concerns addressed.
"It was after the meeting that we went up and tried to convince (Udall) to still hold the meeting with the mayor, the engineer and himself with us, but he wouldn't do that," McClellan said. "He just said they can't without an ADOT person, but he didn't say why they couldn't."
McClellan said they were also told by Udall that the I-11 issue could not be put on the agenda without an ADOT representative present. Dodson said Udall told them that I-11 was not their jurisdiction since it is an ADOT project and that they have nothing to do with it.
"I would characterize it as mystifying," Dodson said. "Just perplexing and mystifying that something so important cannot, would not be discussed with people within a community who are interested in it and see it as very important."
Udall declined to speak with the Green Valley News about I-11.
The town has confirmed that discussion on the I-11 corridor will be on the June 24 Town Council agenda. Udall has also confirmed the agenda item with McClellan by email. Murphy said there are a few things he hopes residents take from the meeting.
"One, I want the residents to know that they're being heard," he said. "Two, to hope they keep it in context what a Tier One is and when they would move to a Tier Two and move to construction. So how that could be an ever-changing landscape. But for me, it's kind of hard to weigh in when they're still working through their initial process."
McClellan and Dodson also want to see more transparency from the town going forward. They were unaware until shown by a reporter that the town had sent a letter signed by former public works director and town engineer Sheila Bowen to the Highway Administration in 2016 expressing support for I-11 and an El Toro Road connection. (Read the letter at gvnews.com.)
McClellan and Dodson want the the town to oppose the I-11 project despite officials having already given its endorsement with a connection at El Toro Road.
"I bet if we took that letter and showed 100 citizens out there that they would have no idea that the town has officially endorsed it," Dodson said. "So while it does represent the town, I don't think it represents the sentiments of the residents of Sahuarita."