Session On Slowing Traffic Calms Debate

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A long discussion of "traffic calming" strategies on Tuesday, Feb. 19, had a marked calming effect on the previously heated discussion of the extension of Mud Springs Road to a roundabout connection to Highway 260.

About 75 people crowded into a Frontier Elementary School meeting room to tell the Surface Transportation Advisory Commit-tee (STAC) how Payson could prevent an extended Mud Springs Road from turning into a highway bypass that would give out-of-town weekend drivers a circuitous shortcut connecting the Beeline and Highway 260.

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Liz Monte voices her concerns about wanting only local traffic on the Mud Springs-Phoenix Street route through Payson.

Many of the people attending clearly wanted to reiterate their determined opposition to the extension, insisting hoards of summertime flatlanders would do anything to escape the gridlocked highway.

STAC Chairman Tom Loeffler, also a council candidate, said neither the actual extension nor the highway roundabout was on the night's agenda. The evening would be devoted entirely to talking about ways to prevent the extended road from becoming a de facto bypass, he said.

Several audience members who were veterans of two hearings before the divided Town Council rose to repeat their objections to the project, but each time Loeffler politely deflected their comments -- noting the session was a workshop to get residents' suggestions for structures, signs and strategies that would limit and slow traffic once the road was extended.

"The purpose here tonight is to gather suggestions" on traffic calming approaches, "not to express or support opposition to the extension -- and not to assume that the extension is assured," he added.

Town Engineer LaRon Garrett had prepared a thick booklet detailing dozens of signs, striping and structures constructed by other towns to slow or control traffic.

The booklet offered a mind-numbing array of pictures and descriptions, including barriers to prevent people from turning right onto a street, raised intersection islands to slow hurrying drivers, broad traffic humps that would bounce speeding drivers against the roof, curbs, traffic circles in mid-street, and stripping to narrow streets and so, slow drivers.

After a brief overview, Loeffler divided the room into breakout groups to rummage through the booklet and recommend specific structures or approaches for different stretches of the problematical route.

The route in question would start at the existing angled intersection of Phoenix Street and Highway 260, weave up and down hills easterly to Mud Springs, then turn north for a straight shot along narrow, residential streets all the way to the proposed outlet to Highway 260.

The audience of worried residents mostly sighed and shrugged when Loeffler barred debate on the extension itself, then they set to work in the breakout sessions to apply the traffic-slowing ideas to the route on a block-by-block basis.

The evening ended with reports from the breakout groups listing preferred measures for each stretch. Garrett will take those suggestions, combine them with ideas from at least two homeowners' associations and come up with a plan sometime in the next few weeks or months.

STAC will then hold one or more additional hearings on that specific plan, before settling on a recommendation for the council. At some point, STAC or neighborhood groups will likely meet with the engineers designing the highway roundabout.

The meeting represented a shift from the heated rhetoric and accusations that have marked the debate of the issue before the council.

Mayor Bob Edwards, who lives off Phoenix Street, has resisted the proposed $1.1 million extension of Mud Springs from its current roundabout connection to Granite Dells all the way to Highway 260.

He maintains the route would lure thousands of out-of-town-drivers off the highway, trapping residents of the narrow residential streets in their driveways and endangering children biking and walking to Frontier Elementary School, which fronts on Mud Springs.

Both STAC and repeated council majorities have favored the extension, which has been a top priority in the town's transportation plan for many years.

Supporters argue that the long meander through residential streets would not draw many drivers off the highway, but would provide an outlet to the highway for landlocked neighborhoods and school bus drivers -- while reducing fire and police response times to a big chunk of southeastern Payson -- including the elementary school. In fact, the state originally approved the placement of the elementary school on the promise that Mud Springs would be extended by 2007.

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Residents along the Mud Springs Road and Phoenix Street area met recently at Frontier Elementary to discuss the different road-calming methods available to slow traffic through on Mud Springs, should it be connected to Highway 260.

After Edwards put out a call to action, more than 100 people jammed a council meeting to present signatures representing 200 property owners along Phoenix Street protesting a plan to award the design contract for the roundabout.

This prompted the council to shelve the design contract and send the whole plan back to STAC for community meetings on how to prevent the extension from becoming a bypass.

Two meetings later, a counter protest that gathered 450 signatures supporting the extension prompted the council to reverse course and approve the roundabout design contract.

Mayor Edwards will supports the extension but only if the town can put up some drastic traffic control measure -- such as gates at the highway that would prevent people from turning onto Phoenix Street or Mud Springs on the weekend.

Town Engineer LaRon Garrett on Tuesday said that Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) rules probably make that solution impractical, since ADOT won't approve potentially confusing time-limited restrictions and won't allow barriers to side streets on state right of way.

On Tuesday night, the breakout sessions demonstrated the tough issues facing residents, already dissatisfied with the number of cars trundling down the narrow neighborhood streets.

The group studying the existing connection between Phoenix Street and the Beeline Highway said the narrow, curbless street without so much as a sidewalk already resembles some of the "narrowing" approaches to slowing traffic featured in the STAC booklet.

"It's not speed, it's volume," observed Liz Monte, who lives on that stretch.

The group spent most of its time wrestling with alternatives for keeping cars off the street altogether, especially on weekends.

They debated a "pork chop" island at the end of the street that would prevent anyone from turning right onto Phoenix Street from northbound Highway 87. That would require residents to constantly turn onto other streets to filter down to their houses -- but it would keep bypass seekers from turning off the highway.

They also debated whether they could accomplish the same goal by putting up stern warning signs forbidding turns onto the street or limiting the street to "local traffic" on the weekends.

Garrett later said both those time-limited approaches would probably run afoul of ADOT restrictions.

So after wrestling inconclusively with attempts to keep traffic off the street altogether, the group waded through the pages of pictures of striping, center islands, pinch points and other tactics. Ultimately, they liked the look of a small, landscaped traffic circle plopped down in the middle of the street, to force cars to slow and circle.

"Of course, speed humps and traffic circles won't reduce volume -- which is the whole problem," said Monte.

"What if we just tore up the pavement and left it dirt?" asked Trent Moores, who said he worried about his kids playing now on the narrow, busy street.

"They wouldn't turn off on it then, would they?" he asked, only half joking.

"The purpose here tonight is to gather suggestions" on traffic calming approaches, "not to express or support opposition to the extension -- and not to assume that the extension is assured," he added.

Town Engineer LaRon Garrett had prepared a thick booklet detailing dozens of signs, striping and structures constructed by other towns to slow or control traffic.

The booklet offered a mind-numbing array of pictures and descriptions, including barriers to prevent people from turning right onto a street, raised intersection islands

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