by Jim Keyworth
roundup staff reporter
The first phase of the Highway 260 improvement project the $21-million Preacher Canyon Section is nearing completion.
All four lanes of the new divided highway should be open to the public in October, said Jason Widman, project superintendent for D.H. Blattner & Sons, the Minnesota-based company that won the bid for the 3.1-mile stretch from milepost 260-263. But before that happens, motorists can expect at least one day of major traffic delays.
"On Aug. 14, they'll be constructing a tie-in to move traffic from the existing road over to the new roadway," said Carol Oaks of Kaneen Advertising & Public Relations, a Tucson-based firm retained by the Arizona Department of Transportation. "There will be pilot cars and people should expect delays of 25 to 45 minutes."
"We'll be shifting both eastbound and westbound to the new eastbound lanes," Widman said. "Then we'll go over there (to the existing highway) and tear that all apart and realign it and make it a better road and that will be the westbound part."
Highlights of the first phase include two massive bridges that span Preacher Canyon, one for eastbound lanes and one for westbound lanes. The existing highway drops down and through the canyon.
"We wanted to stay out of Preacher Canyon," Widman said. "Being so steep it would have been too curvey, so they designed these two bridges instead."
The westbound bridge is more than 700 feet long and the eastbound bridge is 800 feet long. They rise about 90 feet above the bottom of the canyon.
Where possible in other areas, the route followed by the existing roadway has been utilized. But the Preacher Canyon phase was completed first because it is the most dangerous stretch of road along the entire project, which stretches from Payson to Heber.
"It would have made sense to move in a straight line from one end of the project to the other," Oaks said. "But they chose the Preacher Canyon section to start with because it has the most dangerous curves."
Besides the bridges spanning Preacher Canyon, four additional bridges are being built for wildlife crossings.
"Their main purpose is to funnel the elk under the road versus running across the road," Widman said. "A study showed that Little Green Valley and (the rest of) this area tops the state in the number of elk hit. So ADOT is building these bridges with elk fences to encourage the elk to go under instead of over."
Because most of the project is within the Tonto and Apache Sitgreaves National Forests, ADOT is working closely with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies to preserve and protect the natural and historic environment during reconstruction of the highway. Trees are being salvaged wherever possible and the area will be revegetated with native species after the construction is complete.
One extensive section of the existing roadway in the Preacher Canyon area will actually be covered over and returned to its natural state. "People won't even know there was once a road here," said Widman.
The entire project also has received archaeological clearance.
"An archaeology firm working through ADOT did a study and found four sites," Widman said.
"They did their study, checked how many years they'd been there, who lived there in the past. Then they did a report on it and gave us clearance."
The scarcity of water in the area was another concern, so Blattner installed a water pumping station across from Kohl's Ranch to supply water for the project. It captures excess flow from Tonto Creek during the winter and diverts the water to recharge project wells drilled at mile marker 260.
"Blattner installed a 10-mile water line from Kohl's Ranch that will serve other phases of the project," Oaks said.
Bids are due Aug. 24 for the next phase of the project, a 5.3-mile stretch between mileposts 272 and 277 that will bypass Christopher Creek. "It will be a lot safer for the community, so they are totally in favor of being bypassed," said Oaks.
Blattner will be one of perhaps 10 companies bidding on the $40-million Christopher Creek phase of the project. Widman said that's just the nature of the business.
"Every different phase that comes out you have to rebid. That's what makes it disappointing.
"You work your butt off and hope you get that second phase, then all of a sudden you're the third bidder and you don't get it."
D. H. Blattner & Sons, a fourth generation, family-owned company, has employed about 70 people on the Preacher Canyon stretch, which is about two months ahead of schedule.
"Some of them are from Payson, and many of them are from Arizona," Widman said.
Most of those who don't live in the area are renting for the duration of the project.
"We started last winter when things are slow up here, so we didn't have any problem finding housing."
Oaks, for one, is hoping Blattner ends up doing more work on the project.
"ADOT has been real happy with them, and the communities we've worked with along the route have had nothing but good things to say," she said.