At a time when Arizona leaders are expressing renewed interest in increasing trade with Mexico, representatives from Pima County say they are aghast that planning for a new interstate has not included Southern Arizona.

The Arizona Department of Transportation denies the snub and says the proposed Interstate 11 would run from Nevada to Mexico.

“We are looking at this holistically,” ADOT Director John Halikowski said following a contentious three-hour meeting of the state Transportation Board in Sierra Vista Friday.

But Pima County officials point to language in ADOT materials that calls a southern segment of I-11 “potential” and shows that the impact of such an interstate is being studied only in the section between Las Vegas and Phoenix.

“Discussion of Interstate 11 cannot stop in Phoenix,” Allison Moore, a spokeswoman for the Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, told the board. “It’s critical. The ability to ship (produce) to Canada without having to go through California makes our region more attractive.”

A portion of Interstate 11 in Pima County would help commercial truckers avoid heavy freeway traffic around Tucson and Phoenix with a bypass most recently considered to run west of Tucson through Avra Valley.

ADOT must plan for a southern spur in order to alleviate potential gridlock caused by more commercial trucks traveling to and from Mexico in coming years, said John Moffatt, director of strategic planning for Pima County.

“We need to be at the same level as the northern spur,” he said of steps underway to study potential impacts. “We need to be consistent.”

Tucson attorney and Southern Arizona Leadership Council board member Si Schorr told the transportation board that language in ADOT literature fails to ease concerns about being left out.

“ADOT’s ambition for a border-to-border strategy is belied by its actions,” he said. “If Interstate 11 is predicated on trade with Mexico, we don’t understand why only one aspect of it has been singled out as priority.”

Schorr was referring to the corridor between Las Vegas and Phoenix being labeled “priority” — something that state officials say they now regret.

“We lament using the term ‘priority,’” said Scott Omer, assistant director for ADOT’s multimodal planning division. “The whole state is priority.”

He insisted that while the proposed interstate is being studied in segments, the ultimate goal is to have it run through Southern Arizona, whether via a new bypass route or by double-decking Interstate 10.

Steve Christy, chairman of the transportation board, said the anxiety stems from ADOT staffers saying things such as “Southern Arizona is off the table regarding I-11.”

Halikowski asked for the names of employees making such remarks so he could “correct them.”

Whether Pima County is really being disregarded is a matter of opinion.

Cherie Campbell, deputy director for the Pima Association of Governments, said ADOT has not invited the group to planning meetings regarding I-11.

“Yes we have,” ADOT’s Omer told the Star.

For his part, Halikowski said he understands the angst.

“Everybody wants to ensure their seat at the table,” he said.

Following the meeting, Christy felt reassured that ADOT viewed the I-11 project as one that must run border to border.

Still, he said, “this will be a standing item on the agenda.”

If it’s ever built, Interstate 11 could become part of the federally recognized trade corridor Canamex.

The Canamex Corridor, as defined by Congress in the 1995 National Highway Systems Designation Act, involves Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Utah and Montana and calls for the development of a continuous four-lane roadway from Mexico through the U.S. into Canada to facilitate trade among the three countries. Interstates 10 and 19 are already designated segments of the Canamex Corridor.

Contact reporter Gabriela Rico at grico@azstarnet.com