PHOENIX -- The state’s top transportation official says there’s no need to rename the “Jefferson Davis Highway’’ in Arizona because as far as his agency is concerned it no longer exists.
John Halikowski acknowledges that the Arizona Highway Commission voted in 1961 to designate US 80 going through Arizona as the Jefferson Davis National Highway. Davis was the first and only president of the Confederate States of America.
And Halikowski said Arizona was just one of 15 states to adopt the name.
But in a letter to Ryan Ehrfurth, a staffer for the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names, Halikowski pointed out that there is no longer a US 80 in Arizona. Various stretches of the roads it covered now carry different numbers, including US 60 and State Route 80.
And with the disappearance of US 80, Halikowski said, so did the designation.
But the letter will not end the debate that has erupted in Arizona and elsewhere about the presence of monuments and markers for the Confederacy.
One of those markers which proclaims the Jefferson Davis Highway now sits in the right of way along US 60 near Apache Junction. Originally located along US 70 at Duncan, near the New Mexico border, the rock and granite monument was moved to its current location in the 1960s with state approval.
More to the point, it remains there with at least tacit state permission.
And Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Tait said Tuesday that it’s going to remain, at least for the time being.
“The engineers have determined at this point that that monument at Peralta Road is not an immediate safety hazard,’’ he said.
Anyway, Tait said ADOT wants to talk to whoever owns the monument before making any decision.
But here’s the thing: He conceded the state actually has no idea who that is.
“We certainly would appreciate that the organization that claims ownership would contact us,’’ Tait said. “Our understanding is it’s changed hands a few times over the last couple of years.’’
ADOT’s claim it needs more time drew derision from Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, who has been pushing for years to rid the state of all monuments and memorials honoring the Confederacy. He said it took the agency two years just to come to the conclusion that the highway is a legal non-entity.
“Now we’re running into another game,’’ he said, saying it could take ADOT another two years to search out the owner.
Halikowski’s letter follows a meeting last month of the state Board on Geographic and Historic Names. It has authority over certain designations, including mountains, rivers -- and even roads.
Board members were presented with several petitions to remove the designation. A board staffer said he actually was able to find a reference to “Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway’’ on some officials ADOT maps, though they dated from 1992.
One would rename the road for slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. while another suggested honoring former Gov. Rose Mofford. But those stalled amid questions to ADOT of whether the highway designation still exists.
Dennis Preisler, chairman of the names board, said the panel could still pursue putting those names on at least a stretch of the US 60, even though there is now no need to first strip away the Jefferson Davis name. But he said that has complications of its own, including dealing with the fact that some stretches of the road already have other designations, including the Superstition Highway.
What that means, Preisler said, is there will be no immediate decisions made when the board meets again next month.
That still leaves the question of the monument.
Bolding said the solution is simple.
“Now that we know that highway no longer exists, it’s ADOT’s responsibility to move the monument,’’ he said.
Tait, however, said that’s not an option, at least not now, even if there is no longer a stretch of road designated the Jefferson Davis Highway. The issues, he said, start with figuring out who owns it.
Bolding said that claim of needing permission has no merit. He said it would be like saying ADOT would be powerless to remove other monuments along state rights of way that reflect badly on the state’s image simply because who put them there or is responsible could not be ascertained.
“It’s setting a bad precedent,’’ Bolding said.
Tait, however, said that’s not the only hurdle.
“We may be required to do some historical analysis pursuant to federal law to see if it qualifies for federal protection,’’ he said.
Other monuments to the Confederacy and those who fought for it exist in Wesley Bolin Plaza across from the state Capitol and at the state Veterans Cemetery in Sierra Vista. There also is a sign praising Confederate soldiers at Picacho Peak, the site of the only Civil War battle that was fought in Arizona.
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