More than 6,000 cars per day travel from Payson to Pine, and only 3,000 of them climb to the top of the Rim and beyond, according to a recent highway traffic count.
And that number has increased by 10 percent in the last four years, Tom Foster, the Arizona Department of Transportation district engineer, told the more than 140 people who attended a town hall meeting in Pine on Sept 2.
ADOT has commissioned AGRA Infrastructure Inc. to examine the various ways in which Highway 87 can carry vehicles from Payson to the junction of Highway 260 west, some 24.5 miles north and about 2,000 feet up. Darrell Truitt of AGRA presented a map bearing 11 alternative routes to the current mountain climb of Highway 87 that had been initially studied. Of those, six have already been eliminated, Truitt said.
He is recommending that the current highway and five alternatives be studied further for possible expansion.
The stretch of Highway 87 north has been broken down into five sections. Beginning at the Houston Mesa Road, the first two sections run to milepost 263, just south of Buckhead Mesa.
These two sections have one possible alternative route running parallel with the current highway. Of most interest to the Pine-Strawberry residents were the four alternate routes that propose to take the highway around the two tiny mountain towns.
"We don't need a four lane (highway) through Pine and we don't need one through prime forest land," said Pine business owner Shirley Vickers. Her shop, the Gingerbread House, is dependent on the drive-by traffic and she sees a highway bypass as a death warrant for the town.
"We need to take control as citizens," Vickers said. "Commerce is the lifeblood of the town."
Concerns about congestion
But Pine resident Tom Garrett sees a bypass as a way to relieve the tiny community of some heavy traffic.
"I know the businesses would like to keep the traffic in Pine, but (the question is) whether or not that is feasible," Garrett said. Even if a three-lane road were built through Pine, Garrett said, in another 10 years that would not be adequate either.
"In the long run, the center of town is not adequate to handle the traffic. I don't think there is anything to be gained by stopping progress," he said, adding that he thought the proposed route around Pine to the west was "a really great route."
But that route has the potential of running through, or very close to, homes and ranches set against the forest.
"That's my home," said Betty Gooder, a Strawberry resident whose property on the west end of Strawberry is in one of the proposed corridors for an alternative highway.
Arguing in favor of the current route, Vickers asked, "The whole world wants to race toward what? Our community will be destroyed for people who want to get to Colorado and back fast.
"If you want to see tourism grow in Arizona, you need to have roads for them to get around on," Garrett said.
AGRA's Truitt and ADOT's Foster have been down this road before. Back in 1995, they first told Pine-Strawberry residents that Highway 87 was woefully inadequate to meet the coming traffic needs, and in Foster's eyes it has not gotten any better. But he said he was pleased that more people turned out and took an interest at last week's meeting.
There appeared to be common ground about safety issues.
"We have some safety problems with the existing roadway and we need to make it safe," Foster said. Narrow shoulders, cliff edges, steep hills and limited passing opportunities are just a few of the safety concerns Foster brought up. Those opposed to a new route for the highway agree those concerns need to be addressed.
Foster sees a future in which the traffic will increase to a point that residents will find it difficult to use the roads they are used to.
While he admits that has not happened yet, he wants to encourage the community to be proactive.
"If you think you will have a need in eight years, you should plan for it today," Foster said. It will take anywhere from five to eight years just to complete the study of the current highway and its proposed alternatives, Foster said. "Then we have to go out and compete for funding."
But if there is no community support for the project, "it won't happen," Foster said.
The chairman of the Northern Gila County Highways Committee seconded that notion.
"If there is no community consensus about going forward with the project, there probably won't be one," said Cliff Potts. "The needs are so great (ADOT) just cannot get to them all."
Get involved, chairman says
Potts asked for volunteers to represent the P-S community on his committee and both Vickers and Garrett have expressed an interest.
"Let's start the planning process and really drive the planning process as to what we want as a community.
"Let's take to ADOT what we want as a community. It will take a grassroots effort to get it done."
Anyone interested in working with the Northern Gila County Highways Committee should contact Cliff Potts at 474-5276.
"There are more questions in my mind than potential solutions," Potts admitted. "I just can't see doing nothing when you know you are looking at a problem."
Individual comments about the proposed highway changes can be sent to Darrell Truitt at AGRA Infrastructure Inc, 4435 E. Holmes Ave., Mesa, Ariz., 85206 or via fax to 1-480-830-3903, by Sept. 17.
To request a copy of the corridor alternatives map for Highway 87 from Payson to the junction of Highway 260 West that was handed out at the meeting, call 1-480-830-3903.