I thought my 2010 post on the proposed South Mountain Freeway was all that needed to be said, not that it would stop this abomination. But the great thing about Phoenix is how it continues to inspire new material.
Thus, the newly released "environmental impact statement" on the $2 billion project claims that if it isn't built Phoenix's air will grow worse. I am not making this up. Here's the "logic" behind the claim: “In some instances, impacts under the No-Action Alternative would be greater than those that would occur under the action alternatives. As a specific example, energy use — in terms of annual fuel consumption — would be greater.” The Arizona Republic's Sean Holstege writes, "It is a key finding, because many freeway opponents have argued that building nothing, the only available planning alternative, would be better for the environment. All the environmental consequences are typical of freeway projects and can be mitigated, the report found."
First, a little background. Building new freeways is essential to perpetuating the sprawl hustle of the Real Estate Industrial Complex. Without them, empty land on the fringes would be worth much less and be more valuable for agriculture or even as empty desert. It's an old racket, with the added benefit being that the cost, through sales taxes, falls most heavily on the working poor.
Here's what the report doesn't model: What if the money were instead put into commuter rail serving the suburbs southwest and southeast of Phoenix? Such an endeavor would take thousands of cars off existing freeways, helping ease congestion and improve air quality. It's not as if suburbanites don't want it. When I participated in a Buckeye futurist event in the mid-2000s, a survey of residents there found their No. 1 desire to be a commuter rail link to downtown. The rails and right-of-way are already in place.
Nor did it take account one huge positive effect of doing nothing: Encouraging more density and reinvestment in Phoenix's existing urban footprint. If the commute was hellish and getting worse, "consumers" would be less prone to buy houses on the fringes. Central Phoenix has plenty of empty and underutilized land that could become high-quality dense residential neighborhoods. Add more convenient and frequent transit and the air gets better.
Meanwhile, going all the way back to Robert Moses, we know that new roads and freeways are congestion generators. So it defies experience to believe that another eight-lane freeway will make anything better. For example, by creating more sprawl in areas the new route touches outside of the Gila River Indian Reservation, the South Mountain Freeway will draw more traffic, offsetting any dream that it will be a reliever of the Papago Freeway. Without commuter rail or transit, people living in these areas have no practical choice but to make single-occupancy car trips. When gasoline gets prohibitively expensive, as it will, the air and congestion problems will be solved, after a fashion, but $2 billion will have been pissed away on infrastructure suited to the 1970s. Even Los Angeles has abandoned freeway building in favor of an extensive network of light rail and commuter trains.
Finally, the supposed environmental impact statement makes no mention of the externalities, the hidden costs. These run a gamut from lost desert and farmland to further decentralization of employment, increasing the reach of the heat island and pumping more Phoenix smog into the Gila River basin while actually doing nothing to improve the horribly unhealthy air in the Salt River Valley proper. Only passing reference is made to the desecration of the South Mountains. I could find no mention of the project in connection with climate change's dangerous future in central Arizona. Add in the externalities and the cost is far greater than $2 billion.
Phoenix needs more freeways about as much as it needs another real-estate boom (with championship golf! — which fewer and fewer people are playing, by the way).
If the South Mountain Freeway make so little sense, why build it? Partly, custom and habit. Phoenix is like a drunk desperately searching his apartment for another hidden bottle. But mostly the preponderance of power in the metropolitan area will reap short-term profits by moving ahead with a project that will wring the region's neck for decades. House building, road construction moguls, "rock products," office "park" developers — the usual suspects will benefit from the last great extraction industry. Individual players, many well connected, will make a tidy sum to sock away while they live in the San Juans or San Diego and who gives a rat's ass about Phoenix. It is a feedback loop that is killing Phoenix's future.
Tell me again, who hates Arizona?