There's a melancholy feel to the city's southern fringes, out where creosote flats glisten with shattered glass, where mysterious corpses often greet the dawn, and where low-budget dreams are stitched into a crazy quilt of wildcat subdivisions.
It's also here, just beyond Tucson International Airport and the Raytheon missile plant, where rains pummel haphazard roads into a muddy mess. When storms billow up, that mud drags down buses, cars and the spirits of folks living just beyond the city pale.
Folks, that is, like Harry Young. He says rains routinely render one vital intersection--the woolly juncture of Country Club and Old Vail Connection roads--nearly impassable for buses from the Sunnyside Unified School District. And he claims that last month, one bus driver ordered kids off, to wade through the water.
Sunnyside officials hotly dispute that allegation. Regardless, the point remains: After storms, these roads are a disaster.
Who's to blame? Many point to the state Legislature; for years, lawmakers--purportedly under pressure from real estate agents--have refused to let counties clamp down on wildcat developments such as the Old Nogales community, home to Harry Young's family and some 3,500 other residents. There's a touch of American orneriness to the maverick settlements--a streak of gritty independence driving folks to the urban zone's tattered edges. But freedom comes at a price: Old Nogales has little in the way of services most of us take for granted, including sewer lines and running water.
That outlaw gumption gets even less glamorous when it comes to endlessly driving beat-to-hell roads. Even worse, most of those roads are on private property, says Ben Goff, Pima County's deputy transportation director. "There are many miles of easement road out there that have names, that are used for addressing and for 911. But we don't maintain them, and we don't have any right of way. It's the predominant number of roads in that area."
Imagine buying a home in Tucson proper, only to find that your street is owned by a grumpy, sneering neighbor--who can close down your access on a whim. That's exactly the case among the county's wildcat developments.
Goff says people at Old Nogales often get bamboozled. "It's a lower-income area, and I'm not sure how informed or sophisticated (property) buyers out there are, and how much they know when they sign all those pieces of paper. There are supposed to be disclosures about legal access and things like that, but most of the development out there is unregulated."
In other words, many folks are getting more--or less--than they bargained for. But property lines aren't the only things to worry about. "If you go out there in the spring when everything is nice and dry, there's a road to your property. And you can drive on it and haul in a trailer, and it works fine. But when it rains, there's a problem."
Which brings us to Old Vail Connection Road. It's among the few routes not stretching across private property. But neither is it part of Pima County's formal road system. That means Old Vail isn't eligible for federal transportation improvement funds. As a result, crisis management often replaces routine maintenance, such as when flood waters barrel through a broad wash dissecting Old Vail.
Then county crews are dispatched to repair the damage. "We don't routinely go in there and grade Old Vail," Goff says. "But we will go in and repair it when it's damaged after a storm, because it is a county-owned right of way."
Some summers see the road washed out two or three times. And that costs money. "If we can just grade what's there, it's not horribly expensive," Goff says. "But if we have to bring (fill-in) material, it gets pricey."
But at least one portion of Old Vail isn't the county's headache. In February 2002, the city of Tucson annexed a stretch where it intersects Country Club Road. Two miles of that road--one on both sides of the Country Club intersection--are now graded four times a year. That's according to Kurt Hough, superintendent of street and traffic maintenance for Tucson's Transportation Department.
Hough says Old Vail has long been in sorry shape. "I just don't think anything was done out there (by the county) for years and years. And all we do there is grading. We don't do anything for drainage--we just try to grade the road and get all the washboards out."
That creates situations where people sometimes blow their stacks. Harry Young can tell you all about it. He recalls the day, back in August, when students from Sunnyside's Summit View Elementary School--where two of his kids attend--were on a bus ride home.
It was a drenched Friday. Old Vail was a mess, "and at one point, (the driver) told kids to get off the bus and start walking through that flooded water, I kid you not," Young says. "Now, they've got kids walking through the flooded road, and then the bus drives down through the middle of those kids. So you have kids on both sides of the road, trying to dodge the bus.
"I was so furious, I was ready to strangle somebody," he says.
But Young is mistaken, says Gene Repola, Sunnyside's assistant superintendent for operations and facilities. "We did not have a bus that got down into the water and stalled or anything around Summit View.
"We did have a problem getting back into some of the houses and some of the bus stops," he says. "And we did leave the kids off, but not in water pools or with anybody getting stuck. We just left them off a ways from the pickup point. But there was nothing like kids walking through water or anything like that."
One thing Young and Repola do agree upon, however, is the need to improve roads for buses and everyone else around the Old Nogales community. "We've had buses where the front tire goes down into a pothole, and the bumper hits," Repola says. "Front ends get knocked out, and sometimes it bends the bumpers. It's a constant chore."
But floodwaters or not, Harry Young isn't holding his breath. "It's an example of the city and county just blowing us off," he says. "There are more than 800 families who could benefit from them fixing this main artery. But they've told us there just aren't enough of us out here to matter."