Payson historian Stan Brown once spent the better part of a day traveling from Phoenix to Payson by car.
In a month, the last four-lane stretch of the Beeline Highway will fully open, and the new route will shave 10 minutes off the trip, which now takes between 60 and 90 minutes.
The Arizona Department of Transportation, which has spent the past two years rerouting the highway around Sunflower, will open one northbound lane of the new seven-mile route Friday, April 6.
"We'll have to wait until April 20th for a temporary southbound lane on the northbound section of highway to be unveiled," Walt Gray, a public information officer for ADOT, said. Both permanent two-lane roads will be officially open to traffic in late April or early May.
Once that happens, Gray said, the new and improved Beeline will be safer, faster and environmentally friendly.
Initially, the speed limit will remain at 55 mph, as it was on the two-lane road the divided highway will replace.
While that speed limit will likely be raised in the not-too-distant future, Gray said, "It won't be reconsidered until after the last phase is completed. I think (ADOT is) reluctant to increase the speed as long as there's still construction on the highway."
A joint venture of Meadow Valley Contractors of Phoenix and general contractor R.E. Monks Construction of Fountain Hills, the $55.6 million project was started in August 1998.
To celebrate the section's grand half-opening, ADOT will hold a dedication ceremony at 10 a.m. April 24 near the southern end of the new Sunflower stretch. Among those already slated to attend, Gray said, are Governor Jane Hull, Secretary of State Betsy Bayless and about 300 dignitaries from the Town of Payson, the Northern Gila County Transportation Committee, the Tonto-Apache and Fort McDowell tribes, the Town of Fountain Hills and the City of Mesa.
All of those folks will be toasting the completion of a historic roadway that was born in 1868, and has been undergoing a top-to-bottom transformation for 31 years.
The latest improvement to the Beeline, which was started in August 1998, and has landed price-wise at $55.6 million realigns the highway around the Sycamore Creek riparian area. In addition to the added lanes, the new roadway includes one section divided by a concrete barrier, another section divided by a regular median, and a total of 10 new bridges.
To many, however, the most important features of the new roadway are those that are of greatest value to the environment.
The new chunk of Beeline is the last of a six-part, 25-mile project that stretches from Four Peaks to Mount Ord. The project stirred up plenty of controversy in the late 1980s, Gray said, because, "We were going through the Tonto National Forest; we were going through environmentally sensitive areas. Negotiations went on as far as having as minimal an impact on the environment as possible.
"The big question was what to do about Sunflower, because of Sycamore Creek and the riparian area around there. Nobody knew if we should go to the west or go to the east, or what the environmental considerations were. It wasn't resolved until the early '90s that we'd go through Kitty Jo Canyon to the east."
The first four of the six projects all between Four Peaks Road and Sycamore Creek was finished in June 1997, at a cost of $27.8 million.
"That was a significant achievement," Gray said, "because for the first time in Arizona, a highway project incorporated a major effort by ADOT ... to reduce the impact on the environment."
The effort ultimately earned ADOT several national design awards, including an Environmental Excellence Award from the Federal Highway Administration in 1999.
"We salvaged 4,000 cacti within the Tonto National Forest actually dug them up out of the alignment and then ... replanted them in the median and the shoulders ... to maintain the natural look of the site prior to construction," Gray said.
ADOT also took 44 willow tree cuttings and planted them in two washes to re-establish the riparian area where the washes had been disturbed by bridge construction; then removed almost 800 boulders, which were later replaced within the 30-foot clear zone of the Beeline's shoulders.
The fifth project, which improved and doubled the lanes within the 5.3 miles between Sycamore Creek and Sunflower, was completed in 1998 at a cost of $29.6 million. Its centerpiece was the Lower Screwtail Bridge the first concrete cast-in-place post-tensioned balanced cantilever segmental bridge built in Arizona.
The $7 million, 1,080-foot long bridge carries southbound traffic over a canyon in the Tonto National Forest. It has a span of 405 feet, with two adjacent spans of 235 and 265 feet that were built without disturbing the environmentally sensitive riparian area that thrives within the bridge's footprint, Gray said.
To accommodate the structure, he said, "Two million cubic yards of earth had to be moved, which is enough dirt to cover an entire football field with a mound 1,000 feet high."
Now that the sixth and final project is nearly complete, Gray views the finished product as "the culmination of 30 years of construction about 25 miles a decade."