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Opinion

Guest opinion

Cunningham: Building Interstate 11 through Avra Valley not a sensible option

Those of you that have driven to Las Vegas over the past few years, have seen signs along US 93 that say “Future I-11 corridor.”

Improving that corridor to be an interstate highway makes sense. It will be able to better handle traffic between Phoenix and Las Vegas and communities in Utah.

There’s another part of Interstate 11 though, that makes little sense to me and has a real possibility of damaging our region.

Current plans for I-11 call for it to go southwest from a point north of Wickenberg, paralleling I-10 as it gets further south. Then, south of Picacho Pass, it joins with I-10.

Here is where I, and many other thoughtful Southern Arizonans, have trouble with this. There is one plan for I-11, the “east option,” that would mean improvements to I-10 and I-19.

But there is a second alternative, the “west option,” that is being advocated for by state transportation planners and many leaders in Pima County government. This one would leave a connection to I-10 near Picacho Pass, but I-11 would continue south in a route through Avra Valley and west of the Tucson Mountains. It would skirt the west side of the San Xavier District and rejoin I-19 south of Pima Mine Road.

There are many problems with this plan. One is environmental. The Center for Biological Diversity called it a “catastrophe” in a press release last week announcing a lawsuit they are filing to stop the “west option.” They note that the proposed road would disturb preserved areas such as the Ironwood National Monument and Saguaro National Park, as well as disrupt a wildlife corridor that was set aside for threatened and endangered species.

Opposition isn’t just limited to environmental organizations. Protests have been lodged by the Tohono O’Odham Nation as well as residents of Avra Valley who see the road and the inevitable development it will bring as a detriment to their rural lifestyle.

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Tucson Water also has some major concerns. Our CAP allocation is recharged in Avra Valley and much of the water that you drink is pumped from wells there. There is a concern that this project could lead to contamination of water supplies in the area.

Another issue that troubles me is that this will mean that a great deal of commercial traffic between Nogales and Las Vegas will bypass Tucson. Bypassing Tucson, after all, is the stated goal of the planners of the project. This concerns me because travel by commercial vehicles along I-19 and I-10 means business for gas stations, hotels and restaurants along that corridor.

My staff did a dive into the various studies about the economic impact of such projects, and the record is mixed. That’s understandable given that geographic realities vary from city to city. However, I can’t imagine that moving a significant amount of traffic to a corridor on the other side of the Tucson Mountains will be good for local retailers.

The other thing that concerns me is what I-11 will bring to Avra Valley and communities south of there like Three Points and the Altar Valley. Currently, that area is sparsely populated and doesn’t make a lot of demands of county government resources that are, as I like to keep reminding folks that live outside of city limits, largely paid for by Tucsonans. I-11 will open the area to large scale residential development. As I’ve noted before, many of the fiscal problems we have in our region are due to the county providing urban services to unincorporated areas that demand them because, as a region, we don’t get compensation from the state for providing those services the way we would in incorporated areas. Building I-11 will mean more suburban sprawl far away from where existing jobs and services are.

This isn’t about me saying no. There is an alternative. The “east option” uses the money that would have gone to build the “west option” to improve I-10 and I-19 to accommodate more traffic. That is a better, more sensible option for Tucson and our neighbors to the west.

Paul Cunningham represents Ward 2 on the Tucson City Council.

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An ADOT crew puts up a sign on US 93 in 2014.

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