MARANA — Eloy and Casa Grande officials recently signaled support for the state’s Interstate 11 project, though residents down in Avra Valley continue to oppose the proposed freeway.
Over the last couple years, Albert Lannon has been questioning and criticizing the freeway that is expected to connect Wickenburg to Nogales. He’s a member of the Avra Valley Coalition, a community group of about 200 residents that live in a rural, unincorporated area north of Tucson.
Lannon said a freeway such as I-11 has no use for Avra Valley residents, so the coalition objects to the idea of it possibly cutting through their community.
The Arizona Department of Transportation is currently completing an environmental impact study that examines possible I-11 routes within a corridor that includes Avra Valley. The 280-mile long corridor stretches from Wickenburg to the U.S.-Mexico border and skirts around the Ironwood Forest National Monument, which is west of Avra Valley.
The way Lannon sees it, ADOT really only has two possible routes for building I-11: either cut through Avra Valley or have the new freeway be an extension of Interstate 10.
The second option would be the coalition’s preference, Lannon said, if ADOT continues to move forward with the project. He said building upon existing infrastructure like I-10 could be a significantly cheaper option, especially for a publicly-funded project.
ADOT claims all options of where to build are still on the table, including the choice not to build anything. Jay Van Echo, project manager for I-11, has previously stated that no specific routes have been designated within the corridor.
Lannon’s coalition is not the only one wishing ADOT would strongly consider using I-10 as an extension of I-11.
The Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, based out of Tucson, comprises of 34 environmental and community groups in Pima County that advocate for biological conservation.
In a letter written to ADOT this month by CSDP Director Carolyn Campbell, she stated the coalition questions the need for a new interstate at all in this area and suggested focusing attention on existing infrastructure.
“In consideration of the proposed Interstate 11 between Nogales and Wickenburg,” the letter stated, “we argue that improvements to existing transportation corridors and reducing congestion on existing highways in order to accommodate future traffic will best minimize environmental impacts.”
The letter further stated that an I-11 route through Avra Valley would “sever critical wildlife linkages” that government agencies have identified as needing protection. Disrupting wildlife’s ability to move about the landscape make animals more susceptible to extinction, CSDP argued.
The Pima County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in 2007 that opposes the construction of “any new highways in or around (Pima County) that have the stated purpose of bypassing the existing Interstate 10” due to the fear that environmental impacts could not be adequately mitigated.
This is one point both CSDP and the Avra Valley Coalition use to argue for utilizing existing infrastructure instead of building new freeways.
The Pinal County Board of Supervisors passed its own resolution in 2010 in relation to Interstate 11, though this one expressed support for the project and deemed I-11 a “transportation priority.”
Both Eloy and Casa Grande have recently issued statements of support for the I-11 project. The Eloy City Council expressed support for the ADOT study currently being done and the Casa Grande City Council approved a resolution on Tuesday that supports the designation of a corridor within Pinal County that may develop into I-11.
The Casa Grande resolution does not specify whether the city supports a corridor that includes a new freeway or one that utilizes existing infrastructure.
The area of Pinal County that ADOT is studying for potential freeway routes starts on the west side, south of Maricopa, then moves along Interstate 8 near Casa Grande and Eloy and descends south to where I-10 crosses into Pima County.
ADOT has previously publicized the positive impact I-11 would have on Arizona’s economic development, but Lannon said he believes the new freeway would hinder existing businesses that cater to truckers driving on I-10 and damage the tourism industry that thrives in the many wildlife parks around Avra Valley.
Lannon said his coalition will remain active this election year, holding candidates accountable on where they stand with I-11. U.S. Sen. John McCain and U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick were among six Arizona members of Congress who voted for legislation last year that designated the southern portion of I-11 as a “high priority corridor.”
Avra Valley may not have much in terms of political clout or urban development, but Lannon said it’s still a place worth fighting for.