February 16 - February 22, 1995


WATCHING democracy in action is better than TV.

This of course presupposes the NCAA basketball tournament isn't on, and that something hot is cooking in the great melting pot of populist public affairs--which pretty much eliminates the month of March from the preceding assertion...

...And of course if you've seen much CSPAN you know the daily grind of the mill wheel of governance can be soporific in the extreme, so maybe democracy in action isn't really better than watching the soaps. Probably much the same, actually, since the subject matter is so similar....

Let me amend my original statement to say that watching democracy at its best in action is as good as, say, The Simpsons.

Anyway we've been catching this terrific piece of theater down in my neck of the woods over the past year or so. I introduced this to readers of The Weekly several months ago when I discussed the alarming volume of interstate truck traffic on State Highway 82 through Patagonia and Sonoita, its inevitable increase when the full impact of NAFTA hits the pipe, and a suggested alternative route from I-19 to I10 via the Sahuarita Road alignment.

Since then a whole bunch has happened. Local folks have circulated petitions, formed ad hoc committees, lobbied politicians and bureaucrats, courted the media and generally done a hell of a job to save their neighborhood and one of the state's favorite getaway destinations from disaster.

The reasoning is simple:

State Highway 82 is a narrow, winding strip of two-lane blacktop through some of the most gorgeous countryside, and a couple of the cutest little historic communities in the American West. That ought to be enough to warrant special protection from this steady invasion of big rigs hauling tomatoes to Chicago and hauling ass through Patagonia. But there's more. The roadway is narrow because the terrain drops off to either side. There isn't enough room on the shoulders to pull a truck over and ticket it for speeding. Or, if mechanical problems arise, there's no safe place to pull off the road and stop for repairs. Plus, this is an area swarming with rubber-necking tourists cruising at speeds half that of the truck traffic. And it's a designated state scenic highway. And five separate school zones dot the roadway, but not a one of them has a crosswalk or a lower speed limit.

This is not a roadway designed by God, Mother Nature or the Arizona Department of Transportation to carry heavy truck traffic. But we've got it because I-19 was poorly thought-out, and takes international truck traffic several miles out of the way.

A high point, of sorts, in the crusade happened two or three weeks ago when Governor J. Fife Symington III visited Patagonia and attended a meeting of locals who presented their views and wishes that the road be off-limits to interstate truck traffic. Symington said he loves Patagonia, enjoys his visits here, but has trouble sleeping through the noise from semi-trucks on the highway. He said he'd close the road to heavy truck traffic, and got an ovation from the crowd.

Well, the intervening weeks have somewhat unraveled the hopes of the local folks and Symington's promise. Minions of the Arizona Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Safety say the Guv can't just close the road to interstate truck traffic. They say only for safety reasons might that be done, and the body count on SR 82 is not high enough to warrant that. It would invite a lawsuit from the truckers if they closed it, ADOT and DPS told us, when they returned last week to present their plan for implementing the governor's pledge.

That plan comes down to lowering the speed limit through Patagonia by five miles per hour. And patrolling the highway with DPS agents who, hitherto, have been all-but-absent from the local scene. And sending inspection teams down our way to stop the big rigs, weigh them, and inspect them for possible safety violations.

This will get the word out in a matter of minutes to trucks heading north out of Nogales--and in days, from coast to coast--and encourage the interstate truck traffic to take I-19 instead.

Us'ns who live in these parts hope like hell it'll work. And we don't want to appear ungrateful or ungracious. But we are somewhat skeptical. We know ADOT and DPS aren't going to make this their home away from home, and that as quickly as the CB radio grapevine puts the word out to avoid the speed trap and weigh-station along Highway 82, it will notify truckers Smokey has gone back to Phoenix and the shortcut through Patagonia is clear again.

The only way we can effect a long-term solution to the problem is to declare this highway closed to all truck traffic except local traffic--cattle trucks during shipping season, and local deliveries. And from what we've been told, the only warrantable criteria for such closure are safety-related.

The problem here is that up to now the only safety criteria given serious weight are accident stats and body count--both viewed in after-the-fact terms. In other words, we need to kill off a bus load of school kids, or something equally splashy and attention-getting, before we can act to make this highway safer.

Sounds a trifle draconian to me.

Mightn't it be a better idea to adopt a new set of criteria--based on common sense and on observable standards of highway design--for imposing limitations on traffic for certain highways? This takes the ounce-of-prevention versus pound-of-cure approach.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist, or even a highway engineer, to know that narrow, winding, two-lane roadways, with steep, soft and narrow shoulders, and lots of blind hills and dense growth on either side, and a scenic designation inviting slow-moving, sight-seeing, old snowbirds...and FIVE SCHOOL ZONES, FOR CHRIST'S SAKE...with a whole shitload of traffic coming up out of Mexico when NAFTA really takes off, and drivers who can't read English road signs, in trucks like the ones you've seen on the way to Guaymas...

...is an accident waiting to happen.

And ADOT tells us they can't do much of anything about it, beyond "discouraging" the big rigs from using Highway 82?

You're just not trying hard enough, boys and girls.

With the help of Symington and the legislature, I think we can frame a set of safety criteria that will allow ADOT to force interstate truck traffic to use the interstate highway system--and not get Arizona sued out of its shorts by the truckers.

The trucking industry is not a bunch of killers and thugs. They're just folks trying to make a living. If all of them have to take the few extra miles around I-19 to I-10 they'll all be on equal footing.

Nobody has to lose his method of earning a living. And nobody has to lose his life.

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February 16 - February 22, 1995

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