A long-awaited transportation plan for Payson unveiled on Tuesday offered the first glimmer of a financially feasible highway bypass — but also for the first time pitted the interests of Payson against Star Valley’s.
The conceptual plan to keep traffic moving for the next 30 years included a potential 3-mile bypass route that would enable drivers to turn off the Beeline Highway just south of town, skirt the edge of the reservation, then veer north and hit the highway again at Tyler Parkway.
Traffic engineers told the crowd such a first-phase bypass could cost as little as $15 million and pull about one-third of the traffic off the already often gridlocked intersection of Highway 87 and Highway 260 in the heart of Payson
The alternative, 9-mile route that bypasses both Payson and Star Valley would probably cost closer to $100 million — and could be added as a second phase later.
Some people hailed the 3-mile bypass as an affordable way to prevent routine gridlock.
But Star Valley Councilman Vern Leis, with support from Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, said the shorter route would just shift the congestion down the road without solving the problem. He predicted that on busy weekends cars would back up from the new intersection at Tyler Parkway all the way into Star Valley.
“You’re just pushing the congestion back into Star Valley,” said Leis. “The highway is our main street — it’s our only ingress and egress. So I’m not too hot about this.”
ADOT spokesman Bill Pederson said “we have to face reality. We have 6,000 miles of state highway and we don’t have a lot of money.”
ADOT engineers said their measurements show the 3-mile bypass would reduce congestion along the highway in Payson’s core by nearly one-third, but still leave Star Valley with only “moderate” congestion. If the state built the bypass, congestion at the Highway 87-260 choke point would remain roughly the same as it is today, despite big increases in population and traffic.
The study assumed that the population of Payson would increase from about 17,000 now to about 24,000 in 2030. Currently, hardly any areas in town have “severe” congestion on an average day. But without the recommended conditions, many intersections on the highway would have “severe” backups, even on normal days — never mind peak weekends in the summer.
The engineers predicted the short bypass may slightly reduce congestion in Star Valley and leave the town on most days facing only “moderate” congestion, which means on most days drivers would move along at just below the speed limit.
Mayor Evans objected to the traffic engineers’ measurements, saying that on busy weekends Star Valley already suffers gridlock.
“I don’t know what your meter is saying, but it’s obviously different from mine,” said Evans.
“I’ve spent like an hour trying to get through town — am I just hitting it wrong? It’s a significant problem because people are trying to get on and off that road and having a difficult time doing it.”
Evans also worried the short route would hit the highway right where the town is building its third fire station, making it difficult for fire trucks to leave in emergencies.
The ADOT traffic engineers later said the state can’t afford to design a system that would avoid serious congestion on peak holiday weekends. Instead, the studies focus on average weekday and weekend flows to avoid gridlock most of the time.
The engineers said the three-mile route would detour drivers headed to the Rim and Show Low around the most congested areas of town, provide a back door to a proposed ASU campus and connect to Tyler Parkway, providing an eastern loop to allow drivers to move around town without turning onto the main highway.
Without the bypass, the engineers predicted the kind of backup that afflicts the highway south of the twin-highway interchange would become severe — not only on weekends, but often during the week. A severe backup means nearly bumper-to-bumper conditions, with many drivers not even making it through the light before it changes back to red.
Several audience members expressed concern about whether businesses in Payson would lose too many customers if the state constructed a bypass. But the traffic engineers said that the bypass would simply reduce the 2030 traffic back down to roughly current levels and let people heading toward Show Low who don’t need to stop for food or supplies to skip much of the congestion.
The traffic engineers were hired by the Arizona Department of Transportation with money from a federal grant to conduct a study of traffic improvements needed in the next 30 years. Engineers making the presentation this week included Dianne Kresich, Vamshi Yellisetty and Rick Powers.
The study included a priority list for both short-term and long-term improvements.
That includes extending Rumsey Drive to McLane Road, so people can get to Walmart off McLane instead of turning onto the highway. The recommendation also included the extension of Mud Springs Road to the highway, a long-suffering and previously controversial proposal. The short-term recommendations include a host of road rebuilds and improvements, mostly projects already on the town’s priority list but stalled for lack of funding.
The mid-term improvements needed sometime between 2015 and 2020 include several extensions of existing roads, including the south end of Green Valley Parkway, Malibu Road between Easy Street and Manzanita Drive, Goodnow Road from the end of the pavement to Bonita Street and two stretches of Sherwood Drive — one from McLane to Colcord and the other from Boulder Ridge Road to Airport Road. Most of those improvements are already included on the town’s transportation plan.
However, almost all of the discussion at the meeting focused on plans for a highway bypass.
The traffic engineers said their study didn’t consider costs or precise alignments. The town would need another $2 million study that would take several years to come up with precise routes and reliable cost estimates. Only then could the town and ADOT compete for gas tax and federal money to actually build the route.