The Town of Sahuarita has reversed itself, formally withdrawing support for an Interstate 11 connection at El Toro Road and Interstate 19.
In a July 3 letter, Town Manager Kelly Udall requested that ADOT consider alternate routes that wouldn't affect residential neighborhoods. That's the opposite of a letter the town sent to ADOT in July 2016 supporting the plan. The most recent letter was sent by the direction of the council shortly after a June 24 Town Council meeting that drew about 100 people opposed to the plan.
The public comment period for the ADOT plan closed Monday. Laura Douglas, community relations project manager for the Arizona Department of Transportation, declined to comment on the town's decision.
Although ADOT expects to make a final decision about the corridor next year, there is no funding or timeline for any future studies or construction, and any highway likely would not likely be built for decades.
The Sahuarita Town Council may be rethinking its endorsement of ADOT's recommended Interstate 11 connection at El Toro Road after more than 100 people packed into Monday night's meeting, all opposed to the plan. But while the council got an earful, they made it clear they believe I-11 is going to happen and opponents should come up with a compromise plan.
Mayor Tom Murphy has previously stated his support for I-11 and said he continues to do so, but he has also said that he wants ADOT to minimize impact. Should ADOT still go forward with making the El Toro Road alternative its preferred corridor, it would be necessary to see how the 400-foot-wide roadway would mitigate the concerns, Murphy said.
"Personally, if they move forward with the Tier Two with this alternative, then as they started narrowing it down if it had a negative impact to our neighborhoods then I would be a champion of correcting that or having it changed," he said. "If they can mitigate it then I'm OK, If they can't mitigate it then I'm not OK."
Udall was unavailable for comment Friday; a staff member directed comments to Murphy.
Dorian Dodson, one of the residents whose home is in the path of the proposed corridor, said she had hoped the town's letter would have been worded stronger, directly stating that the town and residents want to revisit the I-11's alternative corridors and plans. But she is glad the town took a position to oppose the connection.
"We are very pleased about that," Dodson said. "We want to see that continue and really open it up for public discussion. But we're absolutely pleased about that."
The letter also requested that ADOT include town representatives in future meetings and hold public meetings in Sahuarita. During the public comment period, April 5 through July 8, ADOT held hearings in Nogales, Tucson, Marana, Casa Grande, Buckeye and Wickenburg. There was also a late-addition information session held with Jay Van Echo, project manager, in Green Valley, but ADOT did not hold any public hearings in Sahuarita where the corridor would first split from existing highways.
ADOT will have another public comment period following the release of the Final Tier 1 EIS and a preferred corridor.
Dodson is looking forward to hearing a response from ADOT about the corridor's connection point in Sahuarita now that the public comment period has ended, she said.
"What we understood was that (ADOT) wasn't going to make any comment at any point until after the comment period closed," Dodson said. "And now that that has closed we expect to see that everybody's comment will be answered and, hopefully, we can have a more substantive conversation with them as well."
Dodson said she hopes that the town no longer supporting the El Toro Road connection will have an impact on ADOT's plan for the recommended corridor.
While Dodson may be hoping the letter has an impact with ADOT, Murphy wants people to remain cautious about how much importance they place on the town's letter and instead make sure they stay active themselves in submitting their own comments to the project during open periods.
"We're still one comment as a town," Murphy said. "I think people think that there is an extraordinary amount of weight from us as a comment which I don't think that's the case."
Whether the letter has an impact with ADOT, Dodson plans to continue to remain active in her opposition to the corridor and encourages others who are concerned to remain active as well, she said.
"We're going to continue to work very closely with the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection and any other group," Dodson said. "And what we'd really like to see as time goes on, depending upon what ADOT does and how the town responds, (are) public meetings and forums at the end of this year and the beginning of next to really let people know how we feel and how we can be productive and helpful in making sure that this doesn't go through."
The I-11 Draft Tier 1 Environmental Impact Study from ADOT and the Federal Highway Administration proposed a 2,000-foot wide corridor that would connect the Nogales border with Las Vegas. The I-11 corridor would eventually be part of a transportation highway connecting trade from Mexico to Canada.
ADOT will follow the Draft Tier 1 EIS with a Final Tier 1 EIS, which will use public comments to make its final decision in selecting a preferred alternative. A later Tier Two study will eventually narrow the corridor to a 400-foot wide roadway study area. A final Tier One is expected in early 2020, and a final record of decision will follow that year.
Dodson said it was gratifying to her, and others with her, to see so many people show up to the Town Council meeting and opposing the corridor after having tried to spread the message to Sahuarita residents.
"I think it's important for the town to realize that its got a citizenry that, on important issues that affect it, will show up," Dodson said.