The following column is the analysis and opinion of the writers.
For the past 100 years, Pima County residents have passed laws, adopted ordinances and have sought to protect the Sonoran Desert’s natural beauty for future generations. Those community values were front and center at recent public hearings on the proposed Interstate 11.
The attendees provided two clear messages to the Arizona Department of Transportation: “Interstate 11 (I-11) should NOT be built in Avra Valley” and “routing I-11 along existing freeways through greater Tucson could improve our transportation needs.”
The Federal Highway Administration and ADOT should change their recommended alternative for this segment of their proposed Mexico-to-Canada interstate freeway.
The proposed route through the rural area west of Tucson is at the doorstep of Saguaro National Park and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. This idea was overwhelmingly voted down when a similar project was considered in the mid-1980s.
During three years of scoping meetings, a stakeholder engagement process and through a variety of public hearings this May, almost all spoke against I-11 in Avra Valley. The proposed route would cost $3.4 billion more than other alternatives and goes against every decision Pima County and our citizens have made to protect the Sonoran Desert. The highway administration and ADOT have disregarded public opposition to this route, despite some very real concerns.
The proposed route would negatively impact hundreds of thousands of acres of protected public lands. I-11 in the Avra Valley would bring noise, light and air pollution to Saguaro National Park, Ironwood Forest National Monument, Tucson Mountain Park and the Central Arizona Project’s Tucson Mitigation Corridor.
The proposal would also cut through sensitive habitat recommended for protection by Pima County’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. I-11 in the Avra Valley would sever critical wildlife movement corridors, block all animal migration between protected parks, disturb an unknown number of important archeological sites, impede washes and increase the spread of invasive plants.
Visitor experience at Saguaro National Park, which generates $90 million in tourism annually, would be degraded. I-11 in the Avra Valley would eliminate natural quiet, destroy scenic views, threaten native wildlife species and pollute the air. All this would run contrary to the vision of the Tucson Mountain District of the Park established in 1961, which was designated to protect the land from unnecessary development for future generations.
The proposed I-11 also bisects the 2,514-acre Tucson Mitigation Corridor of the Bureau of Reclamation — established to allow wildlife to cross the Central Arizona Project canal. The development would nullify the purpose for which it was preserved and would be contrary to management guidelines explicitly prohibiting development on these lands.
At the hearings, Tucsonans asked for an alternative that would use existing and soon to be available technology (dedicated truck lane, incentives for trucks to drive primarily late at night) and move some shipping to existing rail lines.
Friends of Saguaro National Park and National Parks Conservation Association support the alternative that improves existing freeways to handle local traffic and international commerce in the future
With good planning, we can avoid the costs and impacts of a new mega highway to the west of the city, a boondoggle that would bring sprawl and pollution to rural communities and cherished places like Saguaro National Park.
Fred Stula is executive director of Friends of Saguaro National Park. Kevin Dahl is the Arizona program manager for National Parks Conservation Association.