Arizona's South Mountain Freeway Moves Toward Completion
Linking the Valleys: After a Long History of Controversy and Opposition, South Mountain Freeway Becomes a Reality
The South Mountain Freeway, in the Phoenix metropolitan area, is moving closer to completion after years of planning and construction. Designed to offer a direct link between the region's East Valley and West Valley, and to provide an alternative to I-10 through downtown Phoenix, it will complete the Loop 202 and Loop 101 freeway system. With completion expected in late 2019, the freeway will provide residents an alternate route for travel between the East and West valleys. Approximately 117,000 to 190,000 vehicles daily are forecast to use the freeway by 2035.
Loop 202 (State Route 202) is a partial beltway around the eastern edge of the city of Phoenix, linking the metropolitan area's southwestern and southeastern suburbs. Maricopa County voters originally approved the South Mountain Freeway in 1985, and again in 2004, as part of a comprehensive regional transportation plan.
“Approximately $1.7 billion has been programmed for the Maricopa Association of Governments’ Regional Transportation Plan in Fiscal Years 2016-2020, for the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway project,” reports Dustin Krugel, Public Information Officer for the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT). “This amount includes design, right-of-way, construction, utility and administrative costs. The project is being paid through state, federal and voter-approved regional transportation funds.”
Tensions Between Planners and Area Residents
The South Mountain Freeway did not receive final approval from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) until March 2015, an indicator of the controversy and opposition that has followed the project through its long gestation. Over the years since the project was first proposed, tensions arose and lingered between three groups: regional transportation planners, who argued that the freeway was necessary to ensure smooth traffic flow in future years; the residents of the adjacent Ahwatukee community, who feared losing over 100 homes to eminent domain due to project's alignment; and the residents of the adjoining Gila River Indian Community (GRIC), who alternated between opposition and support of the freeway project, and remained steadfastly opposed to any alignment that impacted the South Mountains.
Funding issues also played a part in project delays, as Krugel points out. The freeway was not constructed as part of the 1985 plan because revenue fell short of estimates and projects were deferred. A new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process began in 2001 and was completed in 2015.
Krugel comments, “Building any new transportation option has consequences, including social and environmental impacts that ADOT is committed to minimizing as much as possible, but there are also consequences to consider if no action is taken, especially increased congestion and air pollution as population continues to increase in metro Phoenix.
“ADOT and its partners have conducted a thorough and deliberate study of the corridor, examining both the impacts from construction and the impacts from doing nothing. It was clear that doing nothing wasn’t an acceptable option, in part because of the traffic demands today and into the future.”
FHWA Approves the Project
Since its outset, the project has alternated from proceeding smoothly, to experiencing delays, to proceeding again. For two decades, debate continued over locating the freeway on GRIC tribal land, retaining its original location, or abandoning the project altogether, with some members of the tribe arguing that negative effects of a freeway would be unfair to them.
In 2013, a non-profit group called the Gila River Alliance for a Clean Environment filed a civil-rights complaint with ADOT, claiming the freeway would disproportionately and adversely affect tribe members. That same year, the Environmental Protection Agency raised several objections to the state's draft EIS, which was several years in the making. The draft statement stated that construction of the freeway would be more beneficial to the environment – reducing pollution by improving traffic flow – than not building the freeway. The EPA claimed that the statement contained overly optimistic traffic projections, while not sufficiently addressing air quality concerns, and thus could harm neighboring communities and environmental resources.
Ultimately, the FHWA Record of Decision in 2015 approved the project and selected a build alternative. ADOT immediately thereafter commenced right-of-way acquisition and worked to procure a design-build-maintain contractor for final design and construction services. Even after the FHWA's final approval in 2015, however; environmentalists and GRIC members filed multiple lawsuits to block construction; in each case, the courts ultimately ruled against them.
The specific alignment of the freeway has been revised several times since 1985. In 1988, the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG), the region's transportation planning agency, suggested an alignment of the freeway's western segment along 55th Avenue and an alignment of the eastern segment along Pecos Road. A federal study in 2001 required ADOT to reexamine those suggestions, while a Citizen's Advisory Team, formed in 2002, reviewed information and provided input. The final recommendations – released in April 2006 – were to route the western portion of the freeway four miles further west to connect with Loop 101, and to reject the proposed alignment of the eastern portion along Pecos Road, suggesting that the latter be built on Gila River Indian Community land instead. Two months later, ADOT overruled the suggestion for the western segment and opted for the current 59th Avenue alignment instead.
In February, 2016, the contract to design, build, and maintain the freeway was awarded to Connect 202 Partners, a joint venture led by Fluor Corporation, with Fluor, Granite Construction, Ames Construction, and Parsons Brinckerhoff being responsible for the final design and construction, and with Fluor and DBi Services, LLC being responsible for maintenance for 30 years. The first phase of construction of the South Mountain Freeway segment of Loop 202 began in September 2016.
Arizona DOT Addresses Multiple Concerns
Through the decades of the South Mountain Freeway project development, Krugel says ADOT has been compelled to address several prominent issues concerning the proposed freeway:
It would cut through low hills on the edge of South Mountain Park Preserve, and other routes would offer better, less destructive options.
Krugel responds, “ADOT studied various alternatives to avoid the South Mountain, but no feasible and prudent alternatives could be identified to avoid impacts on the park. Approximately one mile of the freeway will pass through the southwestern edge of the park. The amount of land in the park that will be affected by the freeway is 31.3 acres, which is less than 0.2 percent of the park.”
It would barricade animal migration routes from the mountain to the plains on the Gila River land below to the south.
“When ADOT proposes a new highway or improvements to an existing highway, a rigorous environmental process is conducted,” Krugel explains. “When and where deemed necessary, wildlife mitigation measures, such as crossings, may be required to be included in these projects.
“The freeway is being designed to protect and maintain opportunities for wildlife movement between the South Mountains, Gila River and Sierra Estrella Mountains. ADOT has a long record of innovative and successful wildlife accommodations as part of construction projects.”
It would unnecessarily spew toxic gases into the air and endanger the health of vulnerable groups nearby, particularly children.
“ADOT and the Federal Highway Administration received more public comments related to air quality than on any other single issue. This project has undergone an unprecedented amount of air quality analysis and coordination with the Environmental Protection Agency, far beyond any project of a similar size in the Phoenix metro area or nationally.”
It would disturb sacred Native American sites, including the South Mountain parkland itself.
Says Krugel, “While there is no perfect freeway project, ADOT and the Federal Highway Administration have worked to minimize or eliminate adverse impacts on the Gila River Indian Community and recognize the Gila River Indian Community’s decision to not allow the freeway on tribal land. ADOT studied in detail and analyzed potential impacts to cultural resources.”
Reduction in Possible Pollution
As Krugel points out, ADOT has a documented history and a national reputation for environmental stewardship. In addition, the Maricopa Association of Governments, the federally designated regional transportation planning agency, is nationally recognized as a leader in air quality modeling.
“Without this project we would see an increase of pollution as traffic comes to a crawl in other areas,” Krugel comments. “Congestion relief resulting from the new freeway will lead to localized air quality emissions reductions on area freeways, arterial streets and at interchanges, benefiting users of area highways and those living near congested roads. Stop-and-go traffic causes more pollution than moving traffic.
“The South Mountain Freeway project is the result of 30 years of environmental, transportation, and socioeconomic analysis, including analysis of several options to address the region’s congestion by the metropolitan planning organization. ADOT has worked closely over the past several decades with communities, area residents and other stakeholders to plan a South Mountain Freeway that not only meets strict environmental standards but creates a long-planned and critical link in the Valley’s transportation infrastructure.”
Editor’s Note: This feature is part one of the South Mountain Freeway series. Look for part two in the May issue of Rocky Mountain Construction.
Photos courtesy of the Arizona Department of Transportation