[et_pb_section bb_built=”1″ admin_label=”section”][et_pb_row admin_label=”row”][et_pb_column type=”4_4″][et_pb_text admin_label=”Text”]
Although Pima County voters put the brakes on a major road project linking I-10 and 19 in last year’s bond election, Southern Arizona officials are still intent on reaping the benefits of the economic development initiative.
The Sonoran Corridor a multi-faceted plan that could create 200,000 full-time jobs and generate $32 billion in yearly regional revenue, according to the Sonoran Corridor Economic and Revenue Impact Analysis.
The corridor would bring new industrial and manufacturing jobs to the area while providing expansion opportunities for the existing companies, like Raytheon Missile Systems, the University of Arizona Tech Park, Tucson International Airport, and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
It would help alleviate vehicular congestion in the area while connecting major trade routes and facilitating easy transportation of products across the region.
“The more efficient and effective our transportation system is, the better we can compete and get our fair share of the jobs and wealth that should be coming to our region,” says Bruce Wright, Associate Vice President for Tech Parks Arizona at the University of Arizona.
The Sonoran Corridor will facilitate the movement of the nearly 60 percent of Mexican produce that comes through the Port of Nogales to reach other parts of the United States, according to Wright.
“Trade tends to follow the path of least resistance,” Wright says. “If you can get products to the market faster you’re going to be attractive as an entry point or logistical center for trade.”
Wright believes the construction of the Sonoran Corridor will strengthen the country’s economic relations with Mexico and create jobs. Tucson serves as an entry point for high-value American-made products that are assembled in Mexico then shipped back to the U.S. Jet engines, automobiles and aerospace industry electronics are among the items shipped through the Port of Tucson to reach destinations on
Tucson to reach destinations on the east or west coast.
“We’re trying to attract companies that will create jobs in Tucson and use Tucson as a platform to sell their products in the Mexican market,” Wright says.
One major goal of the Sonoran Corridor project is to attract not only jobs, but high-paying ones, to the region. UA Tech Park employees make an average wage of $92,000, which is nearly double the Pima County average. With over 40 companies and nearly 6500 on-site workers, the UA Tech Park is one of the largest employment centers in Pima County.
The UA Tech Park encourages and supports technological innovation and commercialization. It is currently recruiting small and mid-sized fast-growth companies, particularly from Israel, Germany, Finland, Canada and even Mexico, to become affiliated with UA’s research enterprise and assemble their products for the North American market.
“The Sonoran Corridor is a critically important part of our strategy,” Wright says. “It will enhance and expand our opportunity to recruit companies that make us much more attractive than we are now.”
Farhad Moghimi, Executive Director of Pima Association of Governments, is responsible for the planning and funding of the corridor project. He believes that in addition to providing a southern entrance to the airport and increased access to freight movement and the Union Pacific Railroad, the corridor will help alleviate congestion throughout various areas of Tucson.
“Where I-10 and I-19 currently meet and through downtown, we have challenges for the capacity of the interstate,” Moghimi says.
“Purely from a transportation perspective, linking I-10 and I-19 would provide auxiliary traffic movement and immediate relief within the urbanized area.”
The actual corridor is not well-defined yet, so needless to say, “we are at the very early stages in the whole planning process,” Moghimi says.
“People need to understand what the return on their local investment is,” Moghimi says. “This is an ongoing opportunity to grow and create jobs, improve traffic flow and transportation.”
Tucson is located in the center of the sun corridor megaregion that stretches from Phoenix through Nogales and down south into Agua Prieta, Sonora. Moghimi says the Sonoran Corridor is just one element of the larger regional opportunity for the future.
“Based on informal feedback from different organizations and people, there’s a general understanding and support for it,” Moghimi says of the corridor. “The question becomes how are we going to pay for it.”
PAG expects to use a combination of federal, state and local money to pay for the corridor. It is currently using $3.5 million in regional funds for the environmental impact study, which will start around January, and the alternative selection process, which is already underway. This process will take 2 to 3 years to complete.
The process will produce a detailed analysis of environmental impacts of choosing certain routes, otherwise known as alignments, and potential mitigations for those impacts. The study will examine the constraints and opportunities of several alternative alignments. The National Environmental Policy Act is followed and the general public is involved in this phase.
The recommended alignment then goes through the approval process, and once approved, advances to the design phase. The full planning and design will cost another $25 to $26 million. Construction is the final phase.
The numbers are still rough estimates because routes have not been selected. Once routes are solidified, PAG will know which elements, like traffic interchange and overpasses, will be factored into the cost.
John Moffatt, Pima County Economic Development Strategic Planning Director, says that the total cost of the plan would come out to $600 million. The design phase would be funded by state money and during that period, officials would apply for federal funding to “build the interstate itself.”
Moffatt says it helps that the Sonoran Corridor was designated by Congress as a national priority interstate freight and trade corridor last year,
because “that gives us bonus points when it comes to funding.”
“It’s difficult to connect the value of a road to a workers’ pocketbooks, especially when they say ‘why would I spend millions on a road when I have potholes in front of my house?’” Moffatt says of taxpayers’ reluctance to support the corridor project. “We’d never expect local taxpayers to pony up $600 million.”
Raytheon is the county’s largest private employer and is currently planning to hire 2000 new employees and invest $130 million in building, according to Moffatt. The corridor’s first leg was already completed with the relocation of Hughes Access Road to give Raytheon space to grow. The new Aerospace Parkway allows Raytheon employees to commute between its plant and operations at the airport and UA Tech Park.
The corridor will provide a shorter commute for the UA Tech Park and Raytheon employees who live in Sahuarita. In addition, Moffatt says the ASARCO Mission Mine in Sahuarita supports the corridor project because it will make travel easier for the number of employees who live in Vail.
Moffatt explains the Pima County Board of Supervisors have been working with the Tohono O’odham Nation’s San Xavier District to finalize routes.
“We found with his blessing and approval some routes that missed their cultural sites,” Moffatt says of working with a T.O. cultural affairs official.
At least 200 members of the Tohono O’odham Nation individual landowners would be affected by the roughly two miles of the San Xavier District the corridor would pass through, according to Austin Nunez, Tohono O’odham San Xavier District Chairman.
One initial proposed route started at I-19 and Pima Mine Road on the reservation but was “taken off the map” altogether because it passed through T.O. archeological sites.
“We asked landowners to see if they could change their minds because there’s always ways to mitigate the impacts to the archeological sites,” Nunez said. In the end, the landowners remained against this idea and the corridor went further south.
According to Nunez, the San Xavier District would probably have to lease the land from the landowners and then lease to outside entities. But it does not become a community issue until the individual land owners make their final decisions.
“I realize the main users of the corridor would be non-district, non-O’odham people,” Nunez says. “If anything I guess it would benefit the Casino at Pima Mine Road.”
Nunez explains that Desert Diamond Casino is a T.O. enterprise that operates independently of the San Xavier District.
“In general, since 1990, the community has said no more rights of ways or transportation corridors,” Nunez says. “Especially with this kind of roadway, there’d be increased automobile traffic similar to what we already experience with I-19 heading south to Mexico.”
Meanwhile, Sahuarita City Councilman Gil Lusk has no problem with the shopping traffic that comes from Mexico and passes his town via I-19.
“Sahuarita is a new community with bedroom facilities,” Lusk says. “As those facilities age, we’re going to have to find money to maintain them.”
Since Sahuarita doesn’t have a property tax, Lusk says the town relies on state sales tax and construction tax to support their infrastructure. The corridor will provide Sahuarita with more opportunities to expand and create businesses that will in turn generate revenue.
In addition, Lusk says the City of Guaymas in Mexico is building a major port to accommodate large containerships from Asia and Europe. The port is already producing a large amount of freight traffic moving north on I-19, and the corridor is “well-placed geographical to capitalize on the flow of goods from the Mexico and gulf coast ports,” according to the Joint Planning Advisory Council.
“Ten to twenty years down the road, I think we can have a real model for future development,” Lusk says.
And as for environmental concerns associated with the corridor’s construction? “I’ve been involved with NEPA for thirty years, and I can tell you there are none,” Lusk says.
In fact, the desert area surrounding the proposed corridor was a bombing range from World War II until past the Korean War, according to Lusk.
“Since it was bombed on a regular basis by overhead aircraft, there’s not much out there in terms of sensitive species,” Lusk says.
Speaking of environmental issues, Christopher Banks has lived in Avra Valley for over 40 years. He worries that the Sonoran Corridor is just another name for the proposed Interstate 11 route which, if constructed, would pass through sensitive areas like Saguaro National Park and the Ironwood Forest.
“Developers get their fingers in the pie and want to make money on building up undeveloped land,” Banks says. “They figure they can shove us little people around here and take advantage of taxpayers.”
Albert Lannon is another Avra Valley resident vocal in his opposition to the Sonoran Corridor. Lannon believes taxpayer money should not be wasted on helping corporations that the corridor will benefit. He believes that Don Diamond “will get a free access highway” with the current proposed route, which drops down along a 3000-acre parcel owned by the real estate developer.
“To us, this looks like the prime example of crony capitalism,” Lannon says. “Huckleberry and the majority of the Board of Supervisors are supporting something for the benefit of the developer.”
But Jim Digiacomo, President and CEO of the Green Valley Sahuarita Chamber of Commerce, says “anything that’s done right is a good use of taxpayer dollars as long as it’s done to the satisfaction of everybody.”
Green Valley is an unincorporated community represented by Pima County Supervisor Steve Christy. Since Green Valley doesn’t have as much say, Tucson, in the economic initiative, Digiacomo says residents and officials are “keeping an eye” on the corridor project.
According to Robert Medler, Tucson Metro Chamber’s Vice President of Government Affairs, the Sonoran Corridor is the first step in remedying a mistake made for decades: not building a highway infrastructure system. Medler believes that the $30 billion annual economic growth will more than justify spending a few $100 million spent now.
“The Sonoran Corridor benefits every person in our community,” Medler says. This is an opportunity for all of us to invest in our future.”