Traffic Study To Tackle Extensions, Gridlock, Transit Plans

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A sweeping, just-awarded, $175,000 study of Payson traffic will affect everything from the odds of an eventual highway bypass to the controversial extensions of local streets.

Payson and the Arizona Department of Transportation last week agreed to the scope of the 18-month, federally-funded plan, to be concluded by June of 2010.

“This is huge,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans of the federal grant. He noted that 90 percent of the federal funds for transportation planning had been put on hold.

“If you’d asked me a month ago, I’d have said you have a better chance of flipping a coin and coming up heads 10 times in a row than we had of getting the money,” said Evans.

A Phoenix engineering firm will start working immediately on a report that will measure and predict street traffic volumes, revisit the long-range plan for the airport, tackle the problem of weekend summer gridlock on the highway, study bus and other transit options, review plans for bike and hiking trails, determine which streets need safety improvements and update the transportation element of the town’s general plan.

The consultants will gather data, hold a series of public hearings, then come out with recommendations that could affect the town’s growth and development for the next 20 years.

As just one example, the consultants will measure current traffic volumes and project future traffic flow for all the streets in town —including Sherwood and Wagon Wheel. The current general plan calls for the eventual extension of those two streets to connect with Airport Road.

However, residents loudly protested any such extension during recent hearings on a general plan change for 220 acres of land swapped with the Forest Service around the airport.

The current general plan traffic element predicted a heavy increase in traffic on Sherwood, even without the extension — and so recommended the extension to improve neighborhood traffic flow. However, actual traffic volumes have already lagged behind the projections made by the town’s last consultant back in about 1995.

The just-approved study could therefore affect a host of neighborhood battles — as well as the long-term debate about whether to build a highway bypass between Highway 87 and Highway 260 south of Payson, which would likely eliminate the highway traffic jams in the summer months. However, many business owners fear it would also divert potential customers.

Evans said Payson transportation advocates had worked doggedly to convince ADOT that the congestion on the highway in the summer was a regional and state issue, not just a Payson issue. That argument helped Payson’s application for the money jump to the head of an underfunded line.

“It’s not primarily the problem 17,000 residents of Payson have getting out of town on the weekend it’s the problem that 100,000 Valley residents have getting through town. That triggered our being booted up in the que. Our approach was to say instead of we want a bypass, we said, here’s a problem — help us come up with a solution,” said Evans.

“Is it turning the Beeline into three lanes north in the early part of the weekend and three lanes south at the end of the weekend? Is it a computerized traffic signal system? What can we do within the parameters that are available to us?”

ADOT and Payson agreed to set up a technical advisory committee to work with the consultants, Jacobs Engineering of Phoenix. The committee will include representatives of Payson, Gila County, the Central Arizona Association of Governments, the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Town of Star Valley, ADOT, the Tonto Apache Tribe and the U.S. Forest Service.

The first public meetings on the study will likely take place this summer, said ADOT spokesman Bill Williams.

“We believe this money is protected and will not be affected by shortfalls in state or federal budgets,” said Williams.

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