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Gila River Indian Community members to vote on Loop 202 extension

Members of the Gila River Indian Community will decide next week whether to allow an extension of the Loop 202 on reservation land. The project has been in the works for more than 20 years, but the debate deals with issues much older than that.  From Phoenix, KJZZ’s Mark Brodie reports.

MARK BRODIE: There are basically two options to connect the east and west valleys on the 202. One would align the freeway with Pecos Road, before connecting with I-10 around 59 th Avenue. It would also require the blasting of part of South Mountain, an area considered sacred by members of the Gila River Indian Community. The second proposal would put the freeway on reservation land, likely just south of Pecos Road, and avoid South Mountain.

LINDA ALLEN: To us, it’s our creator’s home, it is full of cultural significance to us, it’s a very beloved and important place to our survival, our identity as O’Odham people.

DEVIN REDBIRD: We’re not in the business of blowing up our culture. We don’t want to destroy the mountain.

BRODIE: That’s about the only thing on which Linda Allen and Devin Redbird agree. Redbird is a former tribal council member, and founded the group REZiSTANCE, which supports the on-reservation alignment. Allen is with Gila River Against Loop 202. That group advocates a no build policy, and is opposed to the extension of the freeway anywhere, on or off the reservation.

ALLEN: The way it’s framed within the off-reservation people is that Phoenix is having this exponential growth and it just needs to get built, and what we’re saying is, ‘No, we are not put here to deal with Phoenix’s growth problem.’

BRODIE: Allen says the state had its chance to build the freeway in the 80’s, when the proposal first came up. She says the 202 would bring more traffic, noise, pollutants and health problems to the community. Lori Riddle with Gila River Alliance for A Clean Environment says auto emissions would be a big problem, since the reservation sits between two parallel mountains.

LORI RIDDLE: Any pollution that’s produced by the freeway, through the freeway, is going to linger in that area, for the most part, there’s no place for it to go.

BRODIE: The Maricopa Association of Governments’ transportation director says an Environmental Impact Statement would look at all aspects of the environment, including noise, air quality, cultural and socio-economic factors. Devin Redbird says having the freeway on reservation land would give community members input on the project.

REDBIRD: Is it gonna be below, is it going to be at grade, is it gonna be high, because that ultimately dictates how the air flow is on the freeway. And then, we can sit down and say, ‘what plants or trees can help facilitate the pollutants from getting off.’

BRODIE: If the Gila River Indian Community votes yes on Tuesday, transportation officials say they'd immediately start talks with the Nation, discussing exactly where the freeway would go, potential environmental issues and compensation to landowners, among other things. In a written statement, the Chairman of the I-10 Pecos Landowners Association, which is comprised of community members, says in part, “Economic opportunities and the planning of future rights of ways will benefit Community lands and serve the State of Arizona.” Devin Redbird shares that opinion. He’s optimistic the freeway would bring development and jobs, and lessen the community’s reliance on its three casinos.

REDBIRD: Gaming has, I think, a lifespan, so we need to go ahead and diversify, as a community.

LINDA ALLEN: We don’t need another Wal-Mart, we don’t need another gas station.

BRODIE: Gila River Against Loop 202’s Linda Allen acknowledges the freeway might bring jobs to the community, but she says that potential is outweighed by what the community would lose.

ALLEN: What’s gonna happen is our community members are gonna be getting hourly, retail jobs or hospitality jobs, and it’s not anything that’s designed for us to move forward to be ambitious.

BRODIE: And, Allen says there’s also no guarantee the freeway would create any jobs on the reservation, and is hopeful the 202 extension will not get built at all. But MAG says not building the freeway would put additional pressure on I-10, which the agency says is already more or less at capacity.