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‘Magic tunnel’ or ‘crooked road’? Underpass debate revs up Douglas

PAMELA HARTMAN Citizen Staff Writer

Two views of Douglas’s future are colliding in the fate of a historic underpass scheduled for demolition Monday.

Built in 1936 as part of the Works Projects Administration of President Franklin Roosevelt, the four-lane underpass leads into downtown Douglas.

”It’s Douglas’ front door,” said Matt Cook, an environmental health inspector for Cochise County. ”When you come through the underpass, it’s like you go into this magic tunnel and when you come out of it, you’re home.”

City officials say the underpass is too narrow, too small, outdated and useless, and is a safety hazard for commercial trucks heading to and from Mexico. They are going ahead with plans to replace it with a $6 million bypass that will have direct access to east state Route 80, U.S. Highway 191 to Mexico and historic route 80 into downtown Douglas.

Traffic was routed around the underpass yesterday in preparation for the demolition.

But a groundswell of support has grown among local residents who believe the underpass is a vital reminder of Douglas’ past. They argue it should not have been slated for demolition, and they contend that government officials failed to consider its historical significance when they decided to replace it with the bypass.

In coffee shops, dentists’ offices and on radio talk shows, the underpass is a topic of conversation.

Resident Greg Nelson said city officials want a modern entrance to Douglas, which is on the border about 120 miles southeast of Tucson. But he said the town of 15,000 should retain its small-town heritage.

”Nobody in town thinks that we’re Scottsdale, or that we want to be Scottsdale,” he said.

The city should come up with a way to salvage the underpass and build the bypass elsewhere, Nelson said. He contended that officials failed to consider its status as an historical site when they made their decision.

”It could be converted to other uses,” he said. ”There’s really no reason to tear it down.”

Two weeks ago, graduates of Douglas High School poured into town from across the country for a reunion. More than 100 alumni called Gov. Jane Hull’s toll-free number to lobby to keep the underpass.

But they failed to sway the governor.

”I don’t see what is to be gained by keeping a crooked road that today’s trucks can’t even go on,” said Gov. Hull’s spokeswoman, Francie Noyes. ”It is an obsolete structure, and unfortunately it is standing in the way of progress.”

The new bypass will help Douglas become a transportation hub for trade with Mexico, Noyes said.

The tunnel was built in 1936 under tracks for Southern Pacific Railroad. It became a national historic site around 1986, according to Cook.

”It’s a fine example of the very outstanding type of construction that was done in 1936,” said Christine Rhodes, the recorder for Cochise County and a member of the Arizona Historical Society. ”It’s a very, very beautiful structure, and also an important example of Roosevelt’s WPA.”

City Councilman Dale Davis said Douglas was built to accommodate the needs of the railroad and Phelps Dodge Mining Co, creating strange traffic patterns. The railroad tracks above the underpass are no longer in use.

To get to east state Route 80 using the underpass, travelers have to cut through the heart of downtown Douglas on G Avenue. Commercial trucks often take residential streets to avoid the underpass.

Art Macias, Douglas’ economic development director , said commercial trucks sometimes get stuck in the underpass, and the tunnel floods every summer. Macias said it fails to meet today’s safety standards, though he said the structure itself is safe.

”It’s not safe for the type of traffic that it handles now, nor will it be safe for the traffic that it handles in the future,” he said.

Supporters of the underpass respond that the city failed to take steps to prevent flooding or put up signs warning large trucks to use another route.

It is impossible to stop the project now, because bids have already been awarded and work has started, Macias said. Officials say the city went through the necessary steps to demolish a historic site.

The new bypass, funded by the Arizona Department of Transportation, will have a rest area, a small park, and possibly a tourist kiosk, Macias said. It will be adjacent to Douglas’s historic train depot, now the headquarters for the Douglas City Police, and will include two historic water fountains. Signs will guide drivers to ”Historic U.S. 80” in downtown Douglas. It is scheduled to be finished in April 2000.

The project has been discussed since 1986, with plenty of public hearings, city officials said. But, they said, residents offered little protest until now.

Residents’ nostalgia should not determine the town’s future, Davis said.

”The fact is that this thing has completely outlived any usefulness for the community,” the councilman said. ”I’ll admit that it’s going to be missed, but it’s coming out . . . And I think it’s going to be good for the city.”

Supporters of the new bypass may have economic reasons to see the project built, Nelson said.

Douglas Mayor Ray Borane said it was absurd to think that business leaders were looking to profit from the bypass.

”People come up with the most ridiculous things I’ve heard of in my life,” Borane said. ”People see the bogeyman everywhere . . . You don’t think that a project of that magnitude . . . that they didn’t cross all the t’s and dot the i’s?”

Borane said the new bypass was a done deal when he became mayor in 1996. He said the only residents who complained about its demolition when it was being discussed were merchants worried about losing business if travelers no longer needed to cut through downtown Douglas to get to east state Route 80.

The council and ADOT agreed to erect signs at the new bypass so that drivers would have the option of driving route 80 into downtown Douglas, the mayor said.

Cook, who works in Douglas but lives in Bisbee, said residents may not have been aware that the underpass was going to be demolished when council members made the decision to replace it. He said the fact that residents are expressing their opposition is a good sign.

”Whatever happens, the people of Douglas deserve to have a real say in what happens to the future of the community,” he said. ”The people are finally starting to stand up and speak their minds.”

Pamela Hartman’s e-mail: hartman@tucsoncitizen.com

PHOTO CAPTION: Photo for the Tucson Citizen by Peter Chartrand

The Douglas underpass, built in 1936, was declared a national historic site in 1986.

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