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Environmentalists file lawsuit to halt Arizona's I-11 project

The proposed freeway would connect Buckeye to Nogales. But environmentalists claim planners have been ignoring concerns about how the freeway will affect wildlife.
Credit: AP
From left, Arizona Department of Transportation director John Halikowski, Arizona governor Jan Brewer, Nevada governor Brian Sandoval, Steven Horsford, D-Nev., and Nevada Department of Transportation director Rudy Malfabon unveil a sign that will mark the corridor for the future Interstate 11 between Phoenix and Las Vegas, Friday, March 21, 2014, at Hoover Dam, Ariz. It was a symbolic effort meant to keep up momentum on the project, which is coming of age in an era of scarce highway funding. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

PHOENIX — Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against the proposed Interstate 11 project, alleging federal officials did not adequately assess how the new freeway could impact Arizona's national monuments. 

Development for I-11 has been going on for years without much significant progress. But the Arizona Department of Transportation published in November the results of its years-long Tier I study that outlined a 280-mile corridor for where a freeway could feasibly be built between Wickenburg and Nogales. 

The 2,000-foot-wide route descends down to Buckeye, skirts around the Sonoran Desert National Monument, cuts through land south of Maricopa, then moves south down to Pima County.  

But environmentalists argue the government was not thorough enough in its Tier I environmental study and are now taking their arguments to court. 

The Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection and other environmental groups filed a complaint this week against the Federal Highway Administration, asking the courts to stop the government from advancing on the I-11 project until an "adequate" environmental study is completed. 

Native snakes, tortoises, owls, and rare desert plants could all be uprooted by the construction of a massive freeway, the environmentalists claim.

"The project cuts across large swaths of the Sonoran Desert and threatens public lands and valuable wildlife habitats across southern Arizona's landscape," the plaintiffs wrote in their complaint. 

Credit: ADOT

Thousands of comments have been submitted to transportation officials over the years highlighting these environmental concerns and the plaintiffs argue that the FHWA failed to address them in its environmental impact study. 

"The final EIS did not address the flaws raised by comments on the draft EIS and did not adequately respond to the public's comments," the lawsuit states.

The plaintiffs additionally fault FHWA for allegedly not properly studying the freeway's impacts on the Ironwood Forest and Sonoran Desert national monuments. 

Residents living in southern Arizona have been particularly vocal about their opposition to the proposed I-11 corridor identified by transportation officials.

A section of the route could possibly cut through Avra Valley and Picture Rocks and uproot rural communities that have become accustomed to living far from Arizona's urban centers.  

The Pima County Board of Supervisors, city of Tucson, and the town of Sahuarita have all issued resolutions stating their opposition to this section of the I-11 route.

The environmental groups are hoping the courts will invalidate the government's Tier I study and force FHWA to complete a more thorough version before they can start Tier II of the I-11 project. 

More information about the Tier I study can be found here.

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