State officials say they are hoping to relieve a growing accident rate on a five-mile stretch of road by Christopher Creek with the realignment of Highway 260.
There were 22 accidents between mileposts 272.5 and 277.5 in 1998, an increase of 57 percent over the previous year. Six people were injured in 18 single-vehicle accidents and four two-car collisions. About half the incidents were animal-related.
Donna Atkinson, a spokeswoman with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, said, "That's a lot of accidents -- 22 of them in a year's time in a five-mile area."
In 1997, there were 14 accidents on the same five-mile stretch of road, and in 1996, there were 10.
Myron Robinson, resident engineer with the Arizona Department of Transportation, said the growing accident rate is one reason for the proposed realignment of Highway 260 from Payson to Heber.
The $127 million, seven-year project includes three phases of work: Christopher Creek, Kohl's Ranch and Preacher Canyon. George Lopez-Cepero, senior project manager with ADOT in Phoenix, said future work from the Mogollon Rim to Heber will connect with the highway.
Despite the safety concerns,, some Christopher Creek residents are opposed to the project, which will include a divided highway with two bridges from milepost 272.5 to milepost 277.5. The work will cut through forested areas where creeks converge.
The proposed realignment at Christopher Creek goes to the ADOT Maintenance Yard and to the south of the existing highway between Christopher Creek and Hunter Creek, looping around Christopher Creek's business community.
John Zaleska, a member and past president of the Christopher Creek Homeowners' Association, said he is resolved to having the bypass go through. He just wonders why the proposed realignment has to have a divided highway.
"What I'd like to see is somebody to really play out minimizing the impact of going between the two creeks," he said.
Lopez-Cepero said having the divided highway with a natural land division is preferred for safety reasons. "The second-best is to have a concrete divider," he said. "All the highway will be divided except for the Star Valley section, where there are four lanes. The work we're doing is east of Star Valley and we should go to bid on six different contracts starting in November of this year."
He said one contract will be awarded each year of the seven-year project.
Engineer Robinson said residents have had ample opportunity to voice their concerns. "We started on the environmental impact statement close to nine years ago," he said.
Lopez-Cepero said there will be no more citizens' meetings, that the environmental impact study has been completed and is now in for final approval with the Federal Highway Administration.
"Everyone has had the opportunity to speak to the issues," Robinson said. "I think that, yes, there's going to be impact -- we're going to have to remove trees, but we're working very hard to make it aesthetically pleasing."
Robinson said the community will be readily accessible from the highway. "Basically, just those who want to go to Christopher Creek will go. The same thing will happen to Kohl's Ranch. There'll be good access off the highway and people will be able to see the ranch from the highway."