State must ensure safety before fixing Arizona 85

By Keith Rosenblum


Blow a tire or swerve to avoid an animal on most Arizona highways, and you don't take your life in your hands.

But if that road happens to be Arizona 85, a bowling alley strip of asphalt maintained to standards from the year Pearl Harbor was bombed, it is time to prepare for the perilous.

The only road linking Phoenix and Tucson to Rocky Point, Sonora, and several prosperous Mexican cities is obsolete and deficient. Its two lanes are narrower than most, if not all state highways, a risk in and of itself.

More masochistic yet - and in contravention to today's standards - Arizona 85 has no shoulders and no designated pulloff areas.

While Arizona makes transportation safety a priority and strikes a balance between environmental and economic concerns, common sense and leadership have come to a dead-end on 85.

Ironically, the issue is not about money. More than $6 million is to be spent this fall on "improvements" to a 22.7-mile stretch of the road.

Millions of dollars have been spent on other projects since World War II. There is money.

The issue, rather, is whether the state can overcome conflict with the federal government. Absent public outcry, however, this impasse may be eternal.

Because the highway passes through Organ Pipe National Monument, the federal government says the road is subject to oversight by the National Park Service, which vetoes any expansion.

That is not the view of many Arizonan officials who insist they have jurisdiction 60 feet to each side of the highway's center line.

The road hosts 1,200 vehicles a day, about 1.5 million people a year. On holidays, it is often bumper-to-bumper. But it is a road woefully prepared for today's traffic - much less tomorrow's.

Underlying the Park Service's refusal to widen the highway is the dubious - and undocumented - presumption that narrow roads protect wildlife.

Park Service officials say they must protect three endangered species known to inhabit Organ Pipe: the pronghorn antelope, the lesser long-nosed bat and the pygmy owl.

But that logic does not withstand scrutiny. There are supposedly 12 to 18 pronghorn antelope in the Organ Pipe area, though they are not native to the region.

Yet, that errant herd has several hundred kin in Sonora state. Is there something special about a pronghorn antelope with Arizona residency?

Even if we allow that Arizonans should protect this quadruped family, what evidence could possibly point to a narrow road as a safety measure?

The pygmy owl, if not in abundance in the United States, is in no danger of extinction in Mexico.

The lesser long-nosed bat probably exists in abundance in Mexico, experts there say, but there is no little data available on the species.

The bulk of the money for the pending work - nearly 95 percent - comes from the Federal Highway Administration.

But using federal funds does not absolve Arizona from exercising common sense, whether the sum at stake is $6 or $6 million. Ultimately, the money comes from the same pockets.

The work planned for the fall - repaving, wash reinforcement and turn lanes in front of the monument visitor's center - would represent prudent investments if the highway itself were up to snuff.

But while this road is deficient, the "improvements" are not that. They are ill-considered, expensive diversions, cosmetic flourishes on a road requiring surgery.

* Tucsonan Keith Rosenblum is a former reporter for the Star, as well as press secretary to Rep. Jim Kolbe.


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