Faced with fresh citizen protests, the Payson council reversed itself on Thursday and approved a contract to design a roundabout connecting Mud Springs Road to Highway 260.
A tight-jawed council majority handed Mayor Bob Edwards a stinging defeat and both rejected his appointment to a key traffic committee and effectively endorsed the road extension, pending studies on how to use signs, speed bumps, gates or other measures to keep it from becoming a de facto bypass connecting the Beeline and Highway 260.
The surprising series of 4-2 votes neatly reversed last month's council vote and spurred bitter exchanges between Mayor Edwards and several other council members, after the mayor characterized the vote as purely political.
Although some of the Phoenix Street residents who jammed the last council meeting protested Thursday night's reversal, this time residents of other heavily trafficked residential streets presented some 450 signatures supporting the controversial $1.1 million extension to the highway.
Earl Owens spoke strongly in favor of the extension and presented petitions with approximately 450 signatures to that effect.
He said people already wind through his neighborhood, trying to avoid the highway.
"We all bear the burden of traffic. We all sneak around here and don't make left-hand turns."
Kenny Evans, running against Edwards for mayor, urged the council to ensure the new route won't become a bypass, perhaps by putting in computer controlled gates that would prevent people from turning onto Phoenix Street or Mud Springs from either highway during periods of peak traffic.
Speakers were almost evenly divided on the issue, in stark contrast to the overwhelming opposition voiced at the last meeting.
Edwards sarcastically dismissed the arguments of his council opponents.
"I know this council has trouble planning first and acting second," said Edwards in urging the council to hold off on awarding the roundabout design contract for four to six months while the town's Surface Transportation Advisory Committee (STAC) studies whether traffic control devices can discourage drivers from winding through Phoenix Street and the extended Mud Springs to avoid highway gridlock on the weekends. "It looks like we're spending money without any thought."
But Councilman John Wilson presented a prepared resolution to award the $42,000 design contract, while postponing any other work until STAC can conclude a series of public meetings to study traffic control devices.
Councilors Mike Vogel, Su Connell and Tim Fruth then supported Wilson's motion, which seemed to throw both Edwards and Councilman Ed Blair off balance. After brief discussion, Vogel amended the motion to add up to $5,000 to allow the contract engineers to meet with STAC and residents so the round-about design will reflect any "traffic calming" measures on the residential streets.
"It looks like the road caucus won," muttered Edwards, seemingly taken back by the swift reversal from a month ago when residents responding to his call to action testified furiously for hours about traffic on Phoenix Street -- prompting a battered council to reverse its longtime support for the extension and to send the whole issue back to STAC.
The same four council members then rejected Edwards appointment to STAC of Joanie King, who gathered signatures protesting the Mud Springs extension. Previously, several council members had objected to Edwards' last-minute attempt to appoint a prominent opponent of the extension after refusing to reappoint a STAC member who supported it. The issue had fractured the council, with several councilors insisting Edwards had made veiled political threats.
The rejection of the soft-spoken King, who had earlier served with distinction on a finance task force, provoked strong comments from Edwards and several audience members.
Edwards apologized to King, saying, "clearly this decision was made before we got here. If this was not the political season, you would have been approved on a 7-0 vote. But don't go away -- it's not over."
But Councilor Connell shot back, "I resent that anyone is accusing me of being politically minded. The reason I struggled with Joanie's appointment is that it would be very difficult for her to divorce herself on this issue."
Councilor Fruth said to King, "I don't feel good about you being caught in the middle here, but it has nothing to do with politics."
The action outraged some audience members. Hal Bass, a member of the planning and zoning commission, said "in my opinion that is the most shameful and politically motivated decision made by this council since the day it was started."
Ginger Henry offered up traffic planning reports going back 20 years, all supporting the eventual extension of Mud Springs.
"Come on people, this has been studied. The time has come for us to move on," she said.