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Interstate 11: Great things for Tucson or a Phoenix plot to destroy us?

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What the Devil won't tell you

Interstate 11: Great things for Tucson or a Phoenix plot to destroy us?

  • Interstate 11 is still years away from being a reality but it's still time to keep asking questions
    ADOTInterstate 11 is still years away from being a reality but it's still time to keep asking questions

Interstate 11 just sounds weird.

It’s like Alvernongrata or Speedwayfarer. It’s like the sibling found to have been raised in the basement for a bunch of years finally introduced the rest of the family. It feels like part abomination and part curiosity.

Interstate 11 might soon be coming to an Altar Valley near you.

I'm not yet at the point where I can say it's a good thing or a bad thing but to the extent that it's an inevitable thing means we in Tucson may want to know the score. Let me big-picture it for you because a smarter Tucson is a better Tucson.

I also humbly submit some pretty important questions that need to be asked to frame the discussion.

The plan is to swing I-10's Mexican trade traffic west of Tucson, past the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, through Casa Grande and then divert it through the boom towns west of Phoenix. 

The project will almost certainly lead to more jobs in the Tucson area, just in terms of construction, and smoother travel from Wickenburg to Nogales. That means some faster travel on Interstate 10 and more efficiency.

The project is nowhere near the point of breaking ground. The Arizona Department of Transportation, which does the heavy lifts on the Interstate Highway System in this state, is wrapping up a preliminary environmental impact statement and there's no federal money budgeted yet for a full EIS. Then it has to be put on a state five-year transportation plan. There's always the risk of it getting nixed in the federal appropriations process.

The project has been nearly 30 years in the making just to get it to this point in the discussions.

Anticipating the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, back in 1991 Congress approved and President Bush signed the Inter-modal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (an acoronym that is pronounced "Ice-Tea" in Municipalspeak) that provided for the construction of CANAMEX corridors. These are highways connecting Canada and Mexico through the U.S. that can handle 100,000 vehicle trips per day serving the new North-South trading bloc.

This doesn’t mean they had to reinvent the wheel. It’s often taken the form of widening existing smaller highways so they can serve the greater interstate system so freight could ship from Vancouver to San Diego or Montreal to Miami. Out West, CANAMEX would serve a dual purpose of serving NAFTA and providing a needed north-south interstate through the Inter-mountain West.

In 2015, another congressional highway act provided funding for a preliminary environmental impact statement required to site CANAMEX's Arizona pathway. So it's not just Mexican trade bypassing Tucson. It's the Inter-Moutnain West's new main drag that will miss out on El Guero Canelo.

The bypass has its backers, most notably Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and business interests happy with the construction jobs Interstate 11 will bring. It's got its detractors too, which includes nearly everybody on the Pima County Board of Supervisors, environmental and neighborhood groups plus some on the region's political right. We've got Supervisors Sharon Bronson, Richard Elias and Ally Miller all on the same side of this issue, even.

Tucson City Councilman Paul Cunningham is against it for a variety of reasons and one of them is what he admits is a bit tinfoily: Phoenix is out to get us.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds.

Question 1: Whose plan is it anyway?

Yeah, yeah, we get that the feds have been looking to build a connector between Canada and Mexico but the exact route has been in question. I've been hearing for years it was going to follow Highway 93 from Las Vegas to Phoenix but those were just rumors that proved to be true.

The corridor planning in the EIS report has taken into account a number of plans written by planners who have in no way failed to plan.

They consulted each of the following: The 2010 Statewide Transportation Planning Framework Program; Arizona’s Key Commerce Corridors Report done by ADOT in 2014; The 2014 Pima Association of Governments (PAG) Regionally Significant Corridors Study; The 2017 Arizona State Freight Plan; The 2008 Pinal County Regionally Significant Routes for Safety and Mobility, the 2016 ADOT and Federal Railroad Association (FRA) Passenger Rail Study; And the 2007 and 2009 Maricopa Association of Government’s (MAG’s) Regional Framework studies and Intermountain West Corridor Study (IWCS).

Finally – and this is where Cunningham may be onto something —the 2013 MAG Freight Transportation Framework Study.

The good people of the Valley described their goals for Interstate 11 as the "cornerstone for seamless and efficient transportation of goods, services, people, and information between Canada, Mexico, and the United States.” ADOT summed up the plan’s other goal. “to plan the appropriate transportation infrastructure to attract freight-related economic development by taking advantage of the Sun Corridor’s prime location to serve the West Coast, Intermountain West, and Mexican deep-water ports within a day’s truck drive.”

Ladies and gentlemen, you can be forgiven for missing it but that there is the inherent contradiction in every transportation plan devised by the human race.

You want to use big, sweaty pulsating roadways to create economic activity and then blast past that commercial congestion as fast as possible to save time. The goal is to alleviate traffic congestion while causing it at the same time. Business leaders want more of the latter and transportation planners want smooth travel.

The MAG planners, which apparently included some from Tucson, came up with a nifty compromise. Create business opportunity for Maricopa County and then save time downstream by bypassing Tucson.

Mighty nice of them, because the Pima Association of Governments plan done a year later didn’t include any such bypass for us. Pima County residents registered nary a peep about the need for a western bypass being a thing they were concerned about. So Phoenix thought of it for us, I guess.

Tucson-area planners went along for the ride and that makes sense. Transportation people look for the fastest ways to connect two points while preparing for new growth and investing in that early. Interstate 11 does both. It provides for infrastructure planning in fast-growing metro-Phoenix and finally gets that road-stuffing traffic out of the pre-existing condition that is Tucson.

The Stop Vs. Go Transportation Contradiction is even mentioned in the environmental impact statement itself.

The discussion of Interstate 11’s “Purpose and Need” lays out why the state and ADOT leaders think the route is beneficial. “High-growth areas need access to the high-capacity, access-controlled transportation network,” the report says and that’s true. They do. “Efficient freeway access and connectivity to major economic activity centers are required to operate in a competitive economic market.” Absolutely. No question.

But there ain’t no high-growth areas needing access to high-capacity, access-controlled transportation networks on that side of Gates Pass.

On the other hand, the report's author's tell us “increased traffic growth reduces travel time reliability due to unpredictable freeway conditions that impede travel flows, and hinder the ability to move people and goods around and between metropolitan areas efficiently.” Very true.

So someone gets growth needs filled and someone gets a bypass. Guess who gets what?

The stakes for Tucson's economy would  be higher than providing room and board for I-10 travelers, Cunningham says.

“This isn’t about some guy driving from California to Texas and stopping at a restaurant in Tucson,” Cunningham says. “This is about us losing our warehousing and logistics business that are either going to move out to the new alignment or just move to Phoenix.”

According to state employment numbers, wholesale trade, warehousing and transportation account for 18,000 jobs in the Tucson area. Moving the flow of trade traffic west of Tucson would remove from the path of Mexican trade those facilities in Tucson that now service it.

So that could mean Tucson gets "Winslowed," when the old highway through town gets shifted a few miles to the new highway around town.

Question 2: How does avoidance create jobs?

There is an option in this CANAMEX corridor that would run through Tucson, tracking with Interstate 10 and adding 71 lane miles to the existing interstate and also swinging through Phoenix's western suburbs. Let's call this the Through Tucson option. Then there's the one swinging west of Tucson that includes end-to-end more than 300 new lane-miles of highway (a one-mile stretch of a four-lane road being four such lane-miles).

According to a draft version of the preliminary environmental impact study, the Bypass Tucson alignment would add more jobs to Pima County during the first 25 years after ground-breaking than the Through Tucson option during that same time. This is the part where I say "show your work." Just think how many jobs we would get if it went through Yuma!

There's the fact that just under 40 percent of all the jobs would come from the category of "construction." Building the bypass and the lane-miles accompanying it, therefore, would require more jobs than not building it. But that doesn't account for how Pima County ends up gaining 9,800 jobs across all sectors if the highway is routed through Tucson but would somehow pile up an extra 21,700 jobs if the project moved traffic out of Tucson and down close to the Pima-Santa Cruz county line.

Maybe they're all going to Green Valley. I'm sure the retirees would love that.

Economists can use all sorts of assumptions to guide their research toward a given destination and often it's the people hiring the economists who provide those assumptions.

I'm not saying it happened here because I don't see the assumptions they authors of the study rely on to birth those numbers. I'm just looking at them funny.

Question 3: Are you sure about the ecotourism thing?

One of the concerns locals have about the bypass is how slamming an interstate down on top of the Altar Valley will affect the environment and Saguaro National Park West, the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum and Tucson Mountain Park.

That's Tucson's most accessible part of the desert that is just open space and desert as far as the eye can see. It would seem running Peterbilts through it would ruin the mood.

But author's of the environmental impact statement see an upside:

"As described earlier, ecotourism is an important part of the Arizona economy and the counties along I-11. For example, Southwick Associates estimates that watchable wildlife recreation contributed more than $1.0 billion to the economies of Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima counties in 2011 (Southwick Associates Inc. 2013). I-11 has the potential to provide better access and opportunities for appropriate gateway services, such as lodging, that enhance ecotourism. Carefully planned, I-11 can help further the growth of outdoor tourism as an anchor of the local economy."

Okay this may be true but a major reason ecotourism works in the first place is that it is more about the nature than the tourism. I mean if we were to build a four-lane highway down the Grand Canyon's Bright Angel Trail to Phantom Ranch, that would improve access for everybody.

I'm not sure it's the aesthetic you are going for.

It reads like someone told somebody else "just tell them there will be more transportation options to get to all that under-maximized desert and birds and crap."

Question 47: How badly do we need this bypass?

The Bypass Tucson route would require 758 new lane miles over the 271-mile stretch of freeway. The West Valley-Through Tucson corridor would require 415 new lane-miles along a 280-mile path.

Bypassing Tucson would shorten the trip from Wickenburg to Nogales by 23 minutes at a cost of 350 new lane miles.

My mental computer buffers and breaks when I hear that.

Consider that the Bypass Tucson option is expected to generate $5.6 billion in personal income for the 20 years after the construction is done. The Through Tucson option would generate $2.3 billion during the same time.

That seems like a huge investment for a less than a sitcom's worth of time saved on traffic that only travels between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Try to imagine the look on Tucson's face if Mayor Jonathan Rothschild had said "we're going to again widen Speedway from Silverbell to Houghton roads, thereby saving one entire minute travel time between the two." We'd laugh in his face.

Question 5: Isn't there something better we could be spending the money on?

I had to find a 2014 brochure that estimated the total cost of the project to run between $12 billion and $13 billion and the estimate is a huge guess at this point, considering ADOT doesn’t have an alignment. It does give vague idea of the amount of cost we are discussing. If we are spending an extra 60 to 75 percent to save one minute for every 12 miles …. I mean … eh … It’s not like the country is swimming in infrastructure money and the modifer most used to describe that infrastructure is “crumbling.”

Right here in Tucson, we are having to hunt, scratch and raise taxes just to fix potholes and do road repair left unattended during the Great Recession. Yet there're billions to be spent where no one here lives?

Cunningham would prefer another option that might make more sense.  If Tucsonans had another way to get from the Northwest Side to the Southeast Side then he said "that could be the bypass." Clear a good portion of local traffic off the interstate and leave the freeway more to the Mexico-bound traffic.

What Cunningham won't say because he's not stupid but I will because I ain't running for nothing is "Mother of God! Can we please have some grade-separated interchanges?" The light at River Road and Camino de la Tierra has all by itself taken six years off my life from all the cussing.

Tucson has a long, sordid history with its collective disdain for intersections that swoop streets over or under each other.  We stopped being a "sleepy desert burg" about the time subdivisions jumped Swan Road We are a metropolis one million people strong. Let's have a traffic system that reflects that reality and not one that ramps up our blood pressure.

Worth pressing

Hey, I’m not a lawyer and I’m not a logistician. I don’t know if that is the difference between a company making a profit or going out of business. I also know that the traffic routed west of Tucson won’t be clogging our own personal stretch of Interstate 10. Over time, our drive time will be reduced and that will lead to efficiencies in the Tucson economy.

But there are two types of government funding, in my experience.

There’s the kind politicos have to fight through nine grizzlies and 22 honey badgers to secure. Think cheaper college and better health care. Think infrastructure needs requested from the ground up.

Then there’s the kind of government spending that just rolls down hill. That’s usually the kind that a consortium of states, feds and the biggest of businesses demand. Think military spending or the whole notion of tax cuts for corporations. That’s just a matter of getting the right people in a room.

Interstate 11 strikes me a lot like something that all the right people want than it does something most of the rest of us need.

I'm still in the "willing-to-be-convinced" phase. I don't think it's time yet to confirm Cunningham's conspiracy theory but it's definitely time to start asking questions and pressing for answers. Otherwise we'll just be left standing on the corner, with others making decisions for us.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things the Devil won’t.

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