Emotions High At Bypass Task Force Meeting

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Uneasy words among business owner Gerry Galarneau, Town Manager Fred Carpenter and other members of the 30-person audience underscored the emotion Payson residents feel toward the long-discussed Alternate Bypass Route.

After all, it's not just a road. It's a new artery that reroutes blood from what some people see as a blockage.

The Mayor's Alternate Route Task Force met Aug. 9 to discuss the possibilities, focusing on the financial impact to the town's commercial health if a bypass is built to draw highway traffic away from the center of Payson to ease congestion.

Two representatives from the Arizona Department of Transportation, Chair Chris Tilley and Carpenter fielded questions during the hour-and-a-half forum.

Some said the bypass will funnel consumers and their tax dollars away from the business core of the town.

"If we lose that (sales) tax money, I don't know if (homeowners) want to pay the difference in property tax," Payson resident Bill Witt said.

On the flipside, many residents say they seek relief from the 20-foot RVs, the trailers full of ATVs and watercraft and the cars of weekenders escaping from the Valley heat.

"The people who will use the bypass will use the bypass," said Wal-Mart employee, Bill Powers. "The people who come through town to spend money will still spend money."

Payson's leaders have tossed around the alternate-route idea for years. The first study was conducted in 1989, a second was presented 10 years later.

Preliminary plans include the redirecting of vehicles from the traffic jams of highways 87 and 260.

The bypass will begin miles south of Mazatzal Casino, wind through the Tonto National Forest and end east of Star Valley onto Highway 260.

House of Amethyst proprietor Gerry Galarneau explained that through traffic on the south end of Highway 87 generates 80 percent of his business.

He's concerned that a traffic diversion, starting below the casino, will decimate his customer base.

"I'm not putting another cent into this town if a bypass is put in," Galarneau said.

But studies suggest alternate routes have little effect on the local economy.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation compiled data on 55 small, Midwest communities with populations from 304 to 28,000.

The study concluded that highway bypasses neither destroyed nor saved a town; the general economic impact on these communities was relatively small. The resulting decrease of through traffic tends to increase the sales revenue of towns with strong identities, and appropriate signage can further improve the success of bypasses.

But in Payson, there's no escaping the traffic that backs up on the Beeline Highway.

On the .9-mile stretch of Highway 87 heading north and south between Round Valley Road and Main Street, ADOT clocked a daily average of 24,100 cars last year -- up from 18,700 in 2003.

From Main Street to the Highway 260 junction -- a three-quarter mile strip of road -- traffic jumps to 28,100 vehicles a day -- a 2,100-car increase from three years ago.

LaRon Garrett, the town's public works engineer, said his department estimated as many as 35,000 cars a day pass through Payson during peak season.

"If it's this bad now, what's it going to be in five years?" said Tilley. "I think our work is cut out."

Carpenter, who, as Wickenburg's town manager, orchestrated its bypass, said that a project of this magnitude wouldn't begin construction for at least 20 years.

And that's if everything falls into place. Conceptual plans and planning reports take years. The failure to pass required environmental, social and cultural impact analyses can encumber progress or kill the undertaking altogether.

"Environmental studies cripple all of these projects," Carpenter said.

"All you have to do is find one artifact and it'll hold up the project for years."

ADOT chooses projects on a five-year plan mandated by state statute called the Transportation Facilities Construction Program. Proposals from around the state are submitted to the seven-member, governor-appointed State Transportation Board.

The panel reviews and selects the projects based on priority, taking into consideration traffic flows, available funding and public support.

On March 9 of this year, the Payson Town Council adopted a resolution to submit a bypass proposal to the State Transportation Board.

Dallas Hammit, ADOT Prescott district engineer, said the board -- because of costs -- turned down Payson, which competes with Pinal County for highway funding dollars, for the 2006 to 2011 construction cycle.

The estimated 10 miles of roadway could cost approximately $20 million per mile according to current market value, said Garrett.

And ADOT's budget allocation -- comprised of gas tax and car registration fees -- to rural Arizona amounts to $67 million annually. So, Hammit said, progress is a matter of identifying new funding sources while rallying public support.

But other options do exist. Toll roads, local financial investments and federal money could speed up the process. The town will submit another proposal to the board this coming year.

Tilley said all the Alternate Bypass Route Task Force meetings are open to the public. To join the e-mail list and learn more about meeting times, contact Tilley at tilleyc@hotmail. com.

-- To reach Felicia Megdal call 474-5251 ext. 116 or e-mail fmegdal@payson.com.

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