PHOENIX — The state’s top transportation official says there’s no need to rename the “Jefferson Davis Highway” in Arizona because as far as his agency is concerned it no longer exists.
John Halikowski acknowledges that the Arizona Highway Commission voted in 1961 to designate U.S. 80 through Arizona as the Jefferson Davis National Highway. Davis was the first and only president of the Confederate States of America, and Arizona was one of 15 states to adopt the highway name.
But there is no longer a U.S. 80 in Arizona, Halikowski pointed out in a letter to Ryan Ehrfurth, a staffer for the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names. Various stretches of the roads it covered now carry different numbers, including U.S. 60 and Arizona 80.
As U.S. 80 disappeared, Halikowski said, so did the designation.
But his letter will not end the debate that has erupted in Arizona and elsewhere about the presence of monuments and markers for the Confederacy.
One of those markers, proclaiming the Jefferson Davis Highway, now sits in the right of way along US 60 near Apache Junction. Originally located along U.S. 70 at Duncan, near the New Mexico border, the rock and granite monument was moved to its current location in the 1960s with state approval.
It remains there with at least tacit state permission.
And it’s going to remain, at least for the time being, Arizona Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Tait said Tuesday.
Engineers have determined it’s “not an immediate safety hazard,” he said, so there are no safety reasons to remove it. Tait said ADOT wants to talk to whoever owns the monument before making any decision — but conceded the state has no idea who that is.
“We certainly would appreciate that the organization that claims ownership would contact us,” Tait said. “Our understanding is it’s changed hands a few times over the last couple of years.”
ADOT’s claim it needs more time drew derision from state Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, who has been pushing for years to rid the state of all monuments and memorials honoring the Confederacy. He said it took the agency two years just to come to the conclusion that the highway is a legal nonentity.
“Now we’re running into another game,” he said, adding it could take ADOT another two years to search out the owner. Bolding said the claim of needing permission has no merit and sets a bad precedent.
The solution is simple, Bolding said: “Now that we know that highway no longer exists, it’s ADOT’s responsibility to move the monument.”
Tait, however, said there’s another hurdle. “We may be required to do some historical analysis pursuant to federal law to see if it qualifies for federal protection.”
Halikowski’s letter follows a meeting last month of the state Board on Geographic and Historic Names. The board has authority over certain designations, including mountains, rivers and roads.
Board members were presented with several petitions to remove the designation. A board staffer said he was able to find a reference to “Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway” on some official ADOT maps, though they dated from 1992.
One proposal would rename the road for slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., while another suggested honoring former Gov. Rose Mofford. But those stalled amid questions to ADOT of whether the highway designation still exists.
Dennis Preisler, chairman of the names board, said the panel could still pursue putting those names on at least a stretch of U.S. 60, even though there is now no need to first strip away the Jefferson Davis name. But he said that has complications of its own, including the fact that some stretches already have other designations, including Superstition Highway.
What that means, Preisler said, is there will be no immediate decisions made when the board meets again next month.
Other monuments to the Confederacy and those who fought for it exist in Wesley Bolin Plaza across from the state Capitol and at the state Veterans Cemetery in Sierra Vista. There also is a sign praising Confederate soldiers at Picacho Peak, the site of the only Civil War battle fought in Arizona.