John Nalbandian

October 2004


Two Plus Two Equals Five in Road Building


The state Department of Transportation was caught in a tough spot.  The state was responsible for the highway leading into the resort city, but legitimacy for the department in the state legislature depended upon the department maintaining good relationships with the local authorities.


In this case, it was clear that the two-lane state highway was not adequate to carry traffic into the city.  Especially on weekends the road could be backed up for miles.  The simple solution would be to acquire additional right of way and construct the road to accommodate the traffic.


The department had heard from enough unhappy travelers and merchants in the city that they thought this state investment would be welcomed.  But once they announced that the project was on the drawing boards, what seemed like a simple engineering problem turned very political. 


Not only was the route beautiful, it was environmentally sensitive to the locals, and the prospect of disturbing the land adjacent to the roadway was very disturbing to many, including the state representative from the area. The state chapter of Green Forever already had contacted various state legislative representatives urging their involvement. Those legislators who had pledged to maintain the environmental quality of Arizona’s heritage were especially targeted even though the project was not in their district.


Acquiring the right of way would not be easy.  In some cases the land would have to be taken legally. In a state that prized property rights, this would not win the department a lot of friends.  In other cases, the purchase price would be the source of protracted negotiation. 


An interesting aspect of the situation was the sentiment of the service workers--who could not afford to live in the resort.  Since public transportation was non-existent—they argued that making it easier to get to and from their places of employment was a city obligation.  Their argument was “If the rich people could not get to their jobs, this road would be built!” The association of Hispanic workers, a non-union association with legislative clout was set to mobilize in support of the department.


The department of transportation looked to city officials for guidance, but they received little from a divided city council. The county commission officially declared that they would defer to the city’s decision.


There were some in the department of transportation who pushed for advancing the project.  Others were determined to work with the local jurisdiction even though it would compromise the project’s cost by delaying it. Green Forever and the Hispanic association were waiting for the Department to take the next step.


  1. What makes this situation so difficult?
  2. What values can you identify?
  3. If you were a decision maker in the department of transportation, what would you do?  If you were a decision maker in the city government, what would you do?