Rocky Road Redux

The debate continues about a rockfall containment project on Route 82 near Patagonia.

How far should government go to prevent a possible safety risk, no matter how slight? In one case, the Arizona Department of Transportation plans to spend almost $2 million to protect motorists from the slim chance of rocks rolling onto State Route 82 near Patagonia.

More than three years ago, ADOT proposed a rockfall containment project near a roadside pullout along the highway (See "Rocky Road?" March 30, 2000), labeling the site as having a high potential for boulders from adjacent cliffs ending up on the pavement. To prevent that from happening, state officials presented a variety of construction options.

In response, both residents and environmentalists howled in protest. They pointed to a lack of documentation of any hazard while blasting ADOT for proposing a project that would severely impact one of the Top 10 bird-watching locations in the United States.

Based on that outcry, transportation planners retreated. They have spent $300,000 since then meeting with a citizen study team, developing various new options and having a consultant prepare a draft environmental assessment of the project.

The report states the site is rated No. 1 for rockfall potential problems in all of Arizona. Not surprisingly, it calls for spending approximately $1.5 million to design and construct two ditches that would catch rolling rocks. The building project would also require moving the roadway 10-12 feet closer to the nearby Sonoita Creek while removing a substantial amount of foliage.

The plan lists numerous mitigating measures that could be taken to reduce the impact of the project on the environment. These include building it in phases to minimize the disturbance on nesting birds and requiring a plant salvage and re-vegetation program.

Even though the assessment provides photo documentation of 2-foot-wide boulders having been removed from the highway twice in the last three years, no traffic accidents have ever been reported as being caused by the rocks. Despite that, according to ADOT, the ditches are still needed.

"The project is proposed because random rockfall has the potential to strike vehicles and pedestrians and/or block the roadway," summarizes the report.

That conclusion isn't justified in the opinion of Linda Kennedy, a member of the study team and assistant director of an Audubon Society research ranch east of Patagonia.

"How much safer than zero accidents can you get?" she asks.

Kennedy believes the thousands of bird watchers who walk across the highway each year are in far more danger from speeding traffic than cars are from rare falling rocks. While ADOT has installed rumble strips to alert motorists about pedestrians, Kennedy thinks the 55 mph speed limit needs to be lowered--a no-cost change that would also allow drivers more opportunity to see any debris on the road. But, she says, state officials have told her a reduced speed limit is impossible.

Kennedy is also dissatisfied with the state's entire assessment effort and greatly concerned about future supervision of any building project.

"I have no confidence in there being anyone to oversee construction unless it's someone not planning to work for ADOT," she says cynically, "and who won't operate on an 'oops' factor."

The fiscal responsibility of the entire proposal is another issue raised by Kennedy. Patagonia resident and fellow study team member Annie McGreevy, however, disagrees with that and the other complaints raised.

At first a skeptic of the project, McGreevy now has changed her tune.

"The selected alternative is a good one," she says. "ADOT has to do something for liability purposes. We've seen rocks fall in the last three years that could have been dangerous to a vehicle. ADOT has made a huge effort to get the project right, and I want to complement them on that."

Responds Quentin Lewton: "I'm Annie's boyfriend, and we're on opposite ends of the pole on this issue. Annie is the only one with that view and the community is really opposed to the project."

Then he adds, "The safety risk is worse for pedestrians than motorists. ADOT has really fallen short in this case. In my opinion, if the state isn't going to do a complete safety program in the area, they should leave the damn thing alone."

Sonja Macys, executive director of the Tucson Audubon Society, adds another perspective. She thinks the project will significantly impact the thousands of birders who use the area, but believes that wasn't adequately considered in the environmental assessment.

Macys also charges the only reason ADOT is pushing the project is because the federal government will pay 95 percent of the cost.

"When they get funding like that," she says, "they get an overwhelming desire to play with bulldozers. If there were no federal funds involved, I wonder how much [state money] would be spent on the project."

ADOT spokesman Doug Nintzel disputes that allegation.

"The availability of federal funding is not the only reason we are looking to move forward with this project," he says. "There are a lot of other places we could use the money, but this is a high priority for us."

While the debate continues, ADOT is accepting comments through March 21 on the draft environmental assessment. After that, if they finally have their way, the project could be under construction by the end of this year.

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