Judge lets environmentalists’ challenge to Interstate 11 proceed

A challenge to the planned construction of the 280-mile Interstate 11 project from Nogales to Wickenburg has overcome a significant legal challenge.

In the new ruling, U.S. District Court Judge John Hinderaker dismissed the Federal Highway Administration and the Arizona Department of Transportation’s argument that legal challenges were premature.

Federal agencies have argued that no final decision has been made on where the new road will be located, but a Tucson judge said the route has been decided and the project appears to be moving forward.

Mr. Hindelakar said the Federal Highway Administration, which makes the initial decision, had already concluded that neither the Ironwood Forest nor the Sonoran Desert National Monument deserves special consideration under federal law, and that the highway should be diverted elsewhere. He said it was clear he was obliging the Federal Highway Administration to consider whether it should be installed.

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He also said no analyzes of ecological impacts have been conducted based on the agency’s conclusion that Saguaro National Park and Tucson Mountain Park are not wildlife or waterfowl sanctuaries.

Hinderaker said the documents show that, after initial review, properties designated as ineligible for protection in highway placement decisions “even after feedback from the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, Arizona gamefish and others. , indicating that it retained its unprotected designation.” ”

The judge said it’s relevant because it appears that some decisions have already been made.

Evidence appears to indicate that the Federal Highway Administration has blocked off-corridor alternatives under consideration unless new conditions arise, the judge said.

He said a formal “record of decision” by the agency “seems to have allowed the project and selected alternative corridors to move forward despite objections from the agency after the draft and final environmental impact report.” It is.”

That gives them the right to appeal these decisions now, before a final decision is made, Hindelaker said.

Controversial Routes in the Tucson Area

At the heart of the dispute is a federal agency’s decision to authorize an alternate route around Tucson’s west side.

Various environmental groups say the decision didn’t take into account the destruction of the Sonoran desert, the harm to wildlife and the impact on air pollution. By contrast, if the highway were co-located with existing Interstates 19 and 10, the impact would be smaller, they say.

Attorney Wendy Park, who represents the Tucson-based Center for Biodiversity in the lawsuit, said federal agencies “distorted the comparison of alternatives” for choosing “no-build alternatives.” said. Friends of Ironwood Forest and the Tucson Audubon Society also joined the lawsuit.

The plan is backed by the Arizona Department of Transportation.

In a court filing last year, former ADOT director John Heikowski said that without an alternative to I-10, traffic would be so congested by 2035 that it would impede the functioning of the region. Stated.

“Furthermore, the success of the state’s economic development gains depends on continued transportation investments, such as I-11, to remain competitive. A decline would have a negative impact on the economy,” he said at the time. Competitiveness. ”

The project, which could cost anywhere from $3.1 billion to $7.3 billion depending on the final route, also had the backing of former Gov. Doug Ducey. The highway “really benefits our state and allows us to do our part,” he said. We play an important role in economic growth, development and trade. ”

A spokeswoman for current Gov. Katie Hobbs did not respond Thursday to whether she supported the project.

An ADOT spokesperson sidestepped questions about whether the department will continue to support the highway. Instead, Jonathan Brodsky says ADOT’s focus on I-11 and other projects is to “balance all needs, including land use, environmental and population, commercial, employment, transportation, and We remain committed to ongoing engagement with our stakeholders.”

In any event, he said there is currently no funding for further consideration of the road route.

“Almost no money”

Attorneys for the Federal Highway Administration made similar arguments seeking to dismiss the complaint, telling Hinderaker that the lawsuit was premature. They said no decision had been made at this time on which route to take through Pima County, or even whether the project would go ahead, calling I-11 a “barely funded highway construction project.” Stated.

But Park said it misrepresented the situation.

“The decision record committed the FHWA to developing the I-11 corridor beyond the ‘no construction’ option, choosing most of its route, and choosing a possible route through Pima County to ‘west’ or We’ve narrowed it down to ‘eastern options,'” she said in a legal filing. The incident occurred without a federal agency properly completing a legally required assessment of the impact on public lands of either choice, she said.

Hindelaker said in the new ruling that there were sufficient objections to proceed with the case.

“Plaintiffs stated in their complaint that defendants were unable to identify all of the protected lands under[federal law]to determine how seriously each property would be damaged, and to compare and exclude prior to exclusion.” arguing that he did not consider all viable and sensible alternatives to “alternatives,” he wrote.

It’s not just the choice of where to build the road in southern Arizona that’s at issue.

Park said the section between Casa Grande and Buckeye will also affect recreational areas as well as habitat for various endangered species. She said the final leg from Buckeye to Wickenburg will also have environmental impacts.

Proponents, including local officials in Casa Grande and Maricopa, believe the project will help develop the economy, which will eventually extend through Kingman to Nevada.

Get your morning rundown of today’s local news and read the full story here. http://tucne.ws/Morning

Pascal Albright

Howard Fisher is a veteran journalist who has been reporting since 1970 and covering state politics and legislatures since 1982. Follow him on Twitter (@azcapmedia) or email him at azcapmedia@gmail.com.

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