Gila River Indian Community voters do not want a Loop 202 extension around South Mountain on or off their reservation, according to unofficial results in a special election Tuesday.
Voters chose the no-build option with 720 votes. Six hundred and three voted for construction of the freeway on tribal land, while 158 favored the third option, building the freeway off tribal land. The outcome will be certified March 7 by the tribal council.
The results do not mean the freeway won’t be built, but the vote is a statement by the tribe against the highway’s construction, which is scheduled to begin in 2014 or 2015 with a budget of $1.9 billion.
Gila River Gov. Gregory Mendoza said on the tribe’s website there was a great deal of passion on both, from those who advocated for the economics of building the freeway to those who worried it would harm South Mountain and the environment.
“Tonight, we have a clear direction from the community. Our voters don’t want to see this freeway built — not on tribal land or off tribal land,” Mendoza said after polls closed Tuesday. About 6,700 registered voters in seven community districts were eligible to vote.
The study of a Pecos Road alignment now continues as the single alternative in the eastern portion of the study area, east of South Mountain. The preliminary preferred alignment for the northwestern leg of the freeway would follow a route along 59th Avenue.
If the freeway is built along the Pecos Road alignment, about 100 homes and a church may have to be removed. This route would require blasting some ridges on the edges of South Mountain, an area considered sacred by Gila River members.
“This vote is a significant milestone in the process and allows us to focus our efforts now exclusively on the Pecos Road alignment,” he said. “The no-build option is also an alternative, although early studies have indicated there is a strong ‘purpose and need’ for the facility.”
Maricopa City Councilman Marvin Brown, who serves as the council’s liaison to Native American communities, said Wednesday he also respected the tribe’s decision.
A draft of the proposed highway’s environmental impact statement is scheduled for public review later this year and the public will have 90 days to provide comments. The public will have 60 days to respond to the final environmental impact statement before a decision is announced by the Federal Highway Administration.