Phoenix Groups Fight|Giant Road Project

     PHOENIX (CN) – Community groups are furious about a Phoenix freeway expansion that will uproot hundreds of homes and destroy two ridges in the city’s iconic South Mountain Park.
     Nine environmental and community groups sued the federal and state transportation commissions in Federal Court Tuesday on behalf of 50,000 residents, fighting the South Mountain Freeway expansion of Loop 202 from Chandler to Laveen, an unincorporated “urban village” within Phoenix, at the base of South Mountain.
     South Mountain Park, the largest municipal park in the nation, provides welcome visual relief for the 4.3 million people in the fast-growing Phoenix metropolitan area.
     Thousands of people hike trails through its 16,000 acres every weekend, which rise to 1,000 feet above the desert and provide habitat for a wide range of desert plants and animals.
     The 22-mile freeway expansion will uproot 848 homes, pollute the air and destroy three ridges of the South Mountains, two of them in the park, the groups say in their May 19 lawsuit against the Federal Highway Administration and the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT).
     The freeway, which already passes through Tempe, Mesa, Chandler, and Gilbert, will disturb citizens’ “ability to quietly enjoy the area, harm wildlife and biological resources and wildlife and plant corridors, adversely impact significant views and aesthetic values of the park and degrade desert ecosystems, including washes and drainage-ways,” according to the complaint.
     The freeway site was adopted in the 1980s, but plaintiffs say the Federal Highway Administration and ADOT did not consider any alternatives.
     If built, the freeway will increase traffic in the area from 25,000 vehicles per day to 125,000 to 140,000 vehicles per day, the complaint states, exacerbating health risks for more than 15,000 children in 17 nearby schools.
     “We say to ADOT, move the freeway somewhere else or just scrap the idea,” said Pam Lawlis, president of lead plaintiff Protecting Arizona’s Resources and Children. “Our children, seniors, and sacred mountains deserve nothing less than this level of respect and protection.”
     Plaintiffs say the Environmental Protection Agency criticized the environmental impact study done by ADOT and the Federal Highway Administration, finding it lacked adequate information on emissions, a “robust air toxics risk assessment that addresses potential health effects from the proposed new freeway,” whether the project will meet Clean Air Act standards.
     ADOT said in a statement: “While the Arizona Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration have not yet had an opportunity to review in detail the legal action filed against the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway, the agencies are confident that any legal challenges will find that the law was followed in coming to a decision to construct this long-planned freeway.”
     But the citizen coalition says ADOT improperly relied on 2005 census data to support population growth projections and a “purpose and need” for the project, though 2010 data was available. The “2010 census data reflected an approximate 20 percent decrease in projected growth rates,” according to the lawsuit.
     “This mountain is sacred to us, it’s like a church to us,” said Lori Riddle, a member of plaintiff Gila River Alliance for a Clean Environment. “It seems like the state government and the federal government acknowledges all other religions but the Native American religions.”
     Members of the Gila River Indian Community use South Mountain Park “including the areas directly impacted by the proposed Freeway for cultural, religious, and educational purposes,” the complaint states.
     The plaintiffs are Protecting Arizona’s Resources and Children; The Foothills Community Association; The Foothills Club West Community Association; The Calabrea Homeowners Association; The Lakewood Community Association; The Sierra Club; The Phoenix Mountains Preservation Council; Don’t Waste Arizona; and the Gila River Alliance for a Clean Environment.
     They seek declaratory judgment that the expansion violates the National Environmental Policy Act, that the environmental impact statement and record of decision were “inadequate as a matter of law,” and they want all work stopped on the project, and an injunction against it.
     They are represented by Howard Shanker of Tempe.

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