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.
The I-11 Tier 1 study with the recommended corridor connecting at El Toro Road was released April 5, and public comment is being accepted by ADOT until July 8. The ADOT and Federal Highway Administration project would create a trade corridor from Mexico to Canada. It would begin in Nogales, run along Interstate 19, then move west at Sahuarita, then north parallel to Tucson. The plan is in the first phase and any construction could be decades off.
ADOT would still need to process comments before releasing a final preferred route, which either would be the El Toro Road site or a no-build option. The corridor is a 2,000-foot-wide study area. A Tier Two study — for which there is no funding at present — would reduce the study area to a 400 foot-wide roadway study area within the 2,000 foot-wide corridor.
While any actual construction may be decades away, residents in the path of the corridor are voicing their concerns now while the project is in the early planning stages.
The Town Council added an I-11 discussion to the June 24 agenda after residents raised concerns over the path through their neighborhoods west of I-19. A dozen people spoke during the meeting, which saw an overflow crowd.
Sahuarita residents opposed to a plan that could bring an interstate through the west part of town say they're having a tough time getting the attention of local leaders and want the community to have a bigger voice in the decision.
Mayor Tom Murphy said the crowd was the biggest he has seen in his five years on the council. While the crowd was large and passionate, they remained civil and stayed on topic.
"I thought everybody was very well-spoken and very professional," Murphy said. "That was wonderful to see. I certainly understand their passion."
Brian Thompson was among those who opposes the plan. Thompson, a captain and paramedic with the Tucson Fire Department, said he moved to Sahuarita in 1983, when his father took a job with the mines. He was joined at the microphone by his wife, Amy, and six children.
"Mom and dad raised six kids here and five of the six of us kids still live within a mile radius of each other," Thompson told the council. "It's pretty special. It's been so fun as well to see so many of the people that have graduated from Sahuarita High School. They move away and so many of them come back and raise their families here."
Thompson said he looks forward to returning to the small-town feel when leaving work in Tucson, calling it a breath of fresh air.
"Building a large interstate in our town will definitely stimulate economic growth, which is fantastic, but it's going to bring a few things that I don't think are that great," he said, citing crime, homelessness, drug and human trafficking and "the big-city feel."
Murphy continues to support the idea of an I-11 corridor to meet future needs, but said he wants the least amount of impact and no longer understands why ADOT would select El Toro Road as the connection point while also constructing new roadway to move the interstate west of Tucson.
"It appears to be the path of most resistance as opposed to the path of least resistance," he said Tuesday. "So I don't know why that particular route was the preferred alternative as opposed to, as an example, I-19 to I-10. It does have a lot of right of way that's already been established."
Using I-19 and I-10 would also make it possible to make incremental improvements toward the ultimate goal at a reduced price while minimizing the impact to surrounding environments and residents, Murphy said.
In 2016, the town endorsed the I-11 corridor connection to I-19 at El Toro Road in a letter to ADOT dated July 22. It was signed by former public works director and town engineer Sheila Bowen and copied to former Mayor Duane Blumberg and current Town Manager Kelly Udall.
"As the Town continues to move forward in planning, it remains focused on corridor connectivity that enhances opportunities related to international trade corridors," the letter stated. "Those efforts include the contemplated Intermountain West connectivity at El Toro Road and we request consideration of this possible connection point in the I-11 Tier 1 EIS."
The town council and Murphy said they will send ADOT a letter to summarize the position of the council and the concerns of residents based on Monday night's meeting. The letter will be sent before the July 8 deadline for public comment.
But Murphy said residents need to understand it will be counted as a single comment and carry no more weight than any other individual's comment. Residents can make their own comments to ADOT as well as to state legislators, who have more pull over ADOT than the town does, Murphy said.
Council member Gil Lusk told said residents need to use strategy to minimize the impact of I-11 rather than simply opposing the project.
"What you have to do is accept the fact that I-11 is coming, but what we have to do is put it in the right place," Lusk said. "That means we need to take a position of saying the destruction of your communities does not make sense. (I-19) and I-10 exist and they are already in place. And so they are the cheapest and most efficient way to deal with."
Lusk also told the audience that it does not make sense to put a highway five or 10 miles west of the current interstate with huge construction and maintenance cost along with environmental effects.
Council member Melissa Hicks echoed Lusk in telling residents that I-11 is inevitable and there is nothing the town or people as individuals can do to stop the interstate from coming.
"But I agree with (Lusk) in the strategy we all need to be an individual voice so that we can be a united voice in this fight," Hicks said. "But I think what we also have to realize is the people in this room are going to be affected if it goes there, but we also have to keep in mind, regardless of where it goes, it's going to affect people. There's going to be a community or there's going to be a neighborhood or there's going to be somebody who is affected by this."