August 24 - August 30, 1995

Charging A Toll On The Road To Rocky Point May Have Generated Headlines, But What About A $3,432 Traffic Sign?

B y  S t e v e  D e l g a d o

TOLL ROAD TO Rocky Point?

That's chump change compared to the Draft Management Plan of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, submitted by the National Park Service at the beginning of the year--a plan that would spend more than $17 million on employee housing, covered parking for workers, an outdoor recreation area and...oh, yeah, it promises a reduction of human impact on local wildlife.

That's where the reduced speed limit part comes in. Officials and environmentalists say reducing the speed limit, even by 10 mph, would help save many of the animals that are squished each year on State Route 85, the highway that runs through the monument from the junction at Why to the border of Mexico at Lukeville. Not to mention the people killed, many on drunken treks to that poor-man's ocean resort, Rocky Point. The current speed limit is 55 mph, and the proposed reduction in the draft plan is to 45 mph.

But that's about the only thing reduced in this plan. The Park Service's projected cost for the replacement of the speed limit signs is $20,592. To replace six speed limit signs, one for every 10 miles of road, it would cost $3,432 per sign, they tell us.

To give you an idea of the markup involved here, the City of Tucson pays about $18 for the speed limit sign itself, the pole costs $11, and the total package comes to $29. If you want to get technical, add $22 hour labor charges, and the starting price for the city is $51, according to folks at the city sign shop. In all fairness, the state pays more for its signs. For a freeway-sized speed limit display, the Arizona Department of Transportation pays $38.88, without the labor, according to state officials.

Another item with an eye-popping price tag is the television satellite dish for the monument's proposed new employee housing complex--projected at a total cost of $31,200. This when you can buy an 18-inch gizmo from Radio Shack for $699?

But $31,000 really isn't that much, considering the cost of the proposed 10-unit employee apartment building, the roof of which would be supporting the dish. It's projected at $936,000, including covered parking. But, hey, if taxpayers are going to spend a tad over $93,000 per apartment, the least the tenant should have is satellite TV, right?

Answers as to why such a plan is proposed at all come few and far between at the Park Service. Officials there seemed surprised by all the attention their proposal has gotten lately.

"We came up with a couple of ideas that look at all extremes," said Holly Bundock, Park Service spokesperson for the regional office in San Francisco.

The wave of public opposition to the proposed project came mostly from the Lukeville Economic and Environmental Association, whose members rallied when they learned monument officials were looking at the possibility of putting park entrances at Why and Lukeville. Under that plan, the Feds would charge beach-bound Arizonans a fee for entering the park on the way to the shore. The group complained the Park Service under-advertised the legally required public meetings concerning the draft plan. They also alleged officials took in little to no public comment during the planning stage. And association chairman Mike Aho has a rebuttal for just about every facet of the planned expansion.

"The public should have been in on the final plan, but we were not," Aho said. "The government doesn't like the people to be involved in any plans. They don't even want them to read them. But we did. And we acted."

Their organization, born in June, now has more than 200 members. Their written responses to the draft plan, including opposition to the reduced speed limit and, of course, the entrance stations on each end of the park, were hand-delivered to the project's senior planners in Denver.

Patricia Trap is one of the planners for the Park Service who worked on the monument's draft plan. "Most of the comments were related to costs, so that's what we'll be looking at," Trap said.

Concerning some of the cost projections on the draft plan, Trap said, "Sometimes (estimates) were high and sometimes they were low. When you look for costs on a project of this magnitude, they're going to be high."

Trap said the reason behind the apparent sky-high estimates for speed limit signs and the satellite dish are the costs associated with the remoteness of the area, the wear and tear on construction vehicles and the time it would take to get manpower and materials on-site. Trap also said if a project should happen to run over the projected cost, Park Service policy calls for scrapping the whole project. Thus, what is presented are proposed costs with a "safety cushion" figured in.

Aho's explanation was easier to take notes on: "They're building a little empire out there," he said. He claims the monument has already received approval on the 10-unit apartment complex and is awaiting approval for additional employees.

"They want to bring in 36 more employee because the visitation in the park has gone up 7 percent," Aho said. "What kind of business would you be running if you increase your employees by 36 over a 7 percent rise in business?"

Monument Superintendent Harold Smith returned the first phone call a reporter made to his office concerning these issues. But subsequent calls made to him after the dailies ran headlines about toll booths to Rocky Point were not returned.

"We are not in a position to charge a fee for entrance to a state highway," Smith said, thus--unofficially at least--reinstating S.R. 85 to the jurisdiction of Arizona. "The road issue is not in the preferred alternative."

The preferred alternative is the section of the plan that would be considered a best-case scenario, under which the monument would receive the $17.9 million for all improvements and new facilities outlined in the draft plan.

The owner of Lukeville's motel and RV park is Al Gay. He is also (surprise) a member of the Environment and Economic Association. Gay says about two million people a year use S.R. 85 to get back and forth from the border, and of that number about 200,000, or 20 percent, visit the monument itself. Gay is more concerned with the condition of the current road, which he says is more of a hazard than the speed limit.

S.R. 85, he says, was originally improved by the U.S. military in 1941, in preparation for a possible Japanese invasion of California, which would have cut off access to the Pacific by stateside forces. The plan was to use Puerto Peñasco, also known as Rocky Point, as an alternate sea port.

The road to Rocky Point from Why is 22 feet wide, with no shoulders or pull-over spots. Gay says the Arizona Department of Transportation requires roads to be a minimum of 34 feet wide with a shoulder of 10 feet. This should be corrected, he says, adding he and others formed a group to ask the feds to do just that, but they've been ignored.

So here's where the project is now: The Draft General Management Plan for the Organ Pipe National Monument, in its current form, is dead in the water at the western regional office of the National Park Service in San Francisco. A supplement proposal is now in preparation, but the earliest this will be ready is next summer, according to federal officials. The supplement will have to go through the same process, including a public comment period that will be announced; however, which items from the old plan are going to make it to the new version no one wants to say.

While the immediate threat of taxation without representation in the form of entrance fees and tolls seems to be over, the spending planning process will stretch through at least next year. But with the cost projections so out of touch in the original plan, one wonders if Park Service planners have any concept of economic impact, let alone an environmental one.

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August 24 - August 30, 1995

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