The state's leading traffic engineer for the Rim Country district offered the Payson and Star Valley councils a bleak assessment of the process for getting an alternative route to divert the traffic that now gridlocks the highway during some busy summer weekends.
Arizona Department of Transportation District Engineer Dallas Hammit addressed the Payson Council on Thursday, April 3, with the bulk of the Star Valley council and several members of the Gila County Board of Supervisors sitting in the audience.
Hammit recapped the effort to remove a landslide that had closed Highway 87 and highlighted $40 to $50 million worth of current Rim Country highway projects. He also offered some surprising information on ADOT's position concerning whether an extended Mud Springs Road would need a traffic roundabout to connect to Highway 260.
Hammit said highway crews each day are removing 2,800 cubic yards of dirt from the landslide that closed Highway 87 for a week and has since restricted traffic to one lane in each direction at the site of the slide. He said crews must ultimately move 100,000 cubic yards. ADOT hopes to have two lanes open in each direction by Memorial Day.
But in the statement that generated the most interest among the 30 people in the audience, Hammit recounted a glacial transportation planning process any alternative route around Payson would have to survive. He said even if everything went smoothly, Payson wouldn't likely get an alternate route around town for heavy through traffic for 10 or 20 years.
"ADOT does not now have a planning study" of the suggested alternate route underway "and it's not in the five-year plan," said Hammit.
"If things go very, very well and you don't have to mitigate for endangered species, or archeological sites and there are no lawsuits, you'd be very fortunate to do it in 10 years -- most likely longer. I'm sure that's not what the people here want to hear," said Hammit.
A frustrated Mayor Bob Edwards asked why ADOT never apparently responded to a resolution the Payson council adopted supporting a cutoff in December of 2006.
"What we were told a year ago was that the planning portion would be done by about now. What change made all that not come about?" said Edwards.
Hammit said the initial efforts to study the route, cost and economic benefits of a highway cutoff were effectively sidelined and absorbed by a much larger "framework" study to plan statewide highway improvements in the next 20 to 50 years.
Edwards said ADOT officials had assured the town the state would study an alternate route a year ago. He said the state spent a lot of money to widen and improve the highway into Payson, which will now become a crippling bottleneck for the whole route.
"You've got this humongous bottleneck now. How in all the planning process did this not get addressed 15 years ago?"
Hammit said on previous occasions when the discussion of an alternate route came up many Payson residents and business owners opposed the cutoff for fear it would hurt business.
Hammit suggested that a resolution reiterating support for the bypass by Payson and Star Valley would help, but that the town could probably cut several years off the timeline if it funded the initial feasibility study.
In the end, the council simply passed a resolution echoing a similar measure adopted in December of 2006. That earlier resolution vanished into the ADOT bureaucracy so effectively that traffic planners had earlier said they had no record that Payson favored an alternate route to divert trucks and other through traffic onto a highway cutoff, built mostly on Forest Service land.
The council did have an extended discussion about the wording of the resolution, but didn't discuss funding a feasibility study.
"How about we just adopt a substitute motion saying we just want to get going on this thing?" said Councilor John Wilson.
Hammit offered additional insight into a number of major traffic issues in his 45-minute presentation to the council.
He stressed that the overall, statewide framework study remains ADOT's chief planning priority and that a bypass route would face stiff competition from highway projects in other areas of the state.
"We're looking out to 2030 or 2050 and what we need to do if Arizona increases by another 10 or 20 million people," said Hammit
Among his other key points:
- The extension of Mud Springs Road doesn't currently meet the criteria for a roundabout connection and even putting in a signal would depend on the outcome of a traffic study -- which would determine how much of the cost of the intersection ADOT will cover.
- The state is nearly ready to seek bids on a proposed $37 million project to widen Highway 260 east of Star Valley. That project will include two major bridges, each designed in such a way as to encourage elk and other wildlife to migrate through the underpass.
-- ADOT has finished design work on an $8 million project to improve safety on several stretches of the highway between Payson and Strawberry. The changes would widen the shoulders of the road and install guardrails.
-- Projects now in the pipeline will dramatically increase highway spending in the district, which will have risen from about $40 million last year to a projected $200 million next year.