Contemplating driving out of town on the weekend, perhaps to take a hike or visit Pine? Think again: traffic levels are 30 percent higher during the summer season.
Transportation officials say congestion in Payson is at an all-time high, especially on the weekends and holidays when RVs, trailers, trucks and minivans back up through town. Congestion can get so bad that lines of travelers pile up all the way from the casino to the hub of disaster — the intersection of Highways 87 and 260.
Perhaps you try to sneak past the snarl of traffic by snaking through surface streets, only to find the road dead-ends. Roads like Mud Springs, Green Valley Parkway, Sherwood Drive and Rumsey Drive all fail to connect.
Officials say Payson’s roadways are filling up fast, and things will only get worse if improvements are not made.
Currently, around 32,000 vehicles pass through town on an average Saturday or Sunday. Without an alternate route, this number could jump 40 percent by 2030.
Over Memorial Day weekend, researchers got a first-hand glimpse of what residents have complained about for years.
Armed with their clipboards and reflective vests, officials observed the congestion for hours, said Bill Pederson, Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) public information officer. Researchers will add that data to a larger pool of information collected over the last few years.
On Wednesday, officials from ADOT and Jacobs presented their latest findings and recommendations for improving Payson’s streets. The work is part of a transportation study funded by the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) State Planning and Research Program.
The focus of the study is development of a long-range transportation plan that includes short-, mid- and long-range improvements to roads, transit and facilities.
After observing Memorial Day traffic, Pederson said low-cost improvements like new striping, signals, signage and reconstruction of lanes could alleviate some of the jam short-term.
One solution already being tested is increasing signal length. Over recent holiday weekends, 10 seconds was added to the traffic lights at Highways 86 and 260, Bonita and Highway 87 and Manzanita and Highway 87.
Payson Councilor Ed Blair said with the extra seconds, he noticed a big difference in the flow of traffic. He would like to see the seconds added permanently.
ADOT will add the 10 seconds back over the Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends, but has no plans to change signal length long-term.
Other short-term solutions proposed include repaving and adding shoulders to portions of Easy Street, Longhorn Road, Colcord Road and Manzanita Drive. These solutions, however, do not help traffic congestion.
Connecting surface roads could help alleviate congestion by keeping local traffic off the main highway. New roads include connecting Green Valley Parkway from the end of the pavement west of Highway 87 to south of Main Street and from Summit Street to Airport Road, Rumsey Drive to McLane Road and Mud Springs Road to Granite Dells Road to Highway 260.
Ultimately, improvements need to occur on the Beeline Highway, Pederson said.
“As the population continues to grow, the town will get more traffic,” Pederson said. “A long-term solution could be an alternative route around Payson.”
Several alternative or bypass routes have been proposed. The first is from Highway 87, just south of the casino, northeasterly to Tyler Parkway.
The second proposal starts at the same place, just south of town, and swoops further east of town, connecting to Highway 260 in the Lion Springs area.
A third suggestion is creating a loop that starts near the casino and goes west around the town, connects with the north end of town and continues east to Highway 260.
Any one of the alternative routes would ease traffic levels in town significantly, Pederson said.
“Traffic volumes will increase significantly in future years along State Route 87 northbound to State Route 260 eastbound and vice versa. There is a need for an alternate route to improve traffic circulation in the southeast portion of the study area. Moreover, if State Route 87 or State Route 260 closed for any reason, there is no easy emergency exit route,” according to the Payson Transportation Study: Working Paper No. 2.
Although an alternative route would ease the bottleneck, critics of the idea say it would also hurt businesses.
Payson Public Works Director LaRon Garrett said everything is a balancing act. While businesses need the traffic, if it gets too bad, no one is going to want to stop because of the hassle of getting back on the roadway.
Since expanding the Beeline to six lanes would mean removing too many businesses, an alternative route is the best long-term solution, Pederson and Garrett agreed.
But, the odds of a bypass taking shape in his working lifetime is slim to none, Garrett said.
One project that will start soon is construction of a roundabout at the Beeline Highway and Airport Road.
After eight years of planning, ADOT will accept opening bids beginning Friday.
ADOT will pick a contractor July 16 and construction should begin a month later.
The $1.5-million project will take three to four months to complete and includes flashing lights in the pavement when a pedestrian is crossing.
ADOT will explain the transportation study and its recommendations at an Aug. 10 meeting held at the library from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Pederson and Dianne Kresich, ADOT project manager, said all of the ideas are suggestions and no decisions have been made.
It will be up to town officials and the community to decide what changes ultimately occur.