Payson remains a prisoner of the state highway, which generates most of the traffic accidents, congestion and sales tax revenue that pays for police, fire and other town services.
The town’s love-hate relationship with the highway emerges like notes of a bad therapy session from the transportation element in the once-a-decade overhaul of Payson’s state-mandated General Plan blueprint for land use and future growth.
Most of the businesses in Payson line the highway and depend on people who turn off that highway, especially in the busy summer months when traffic increases by about a third. Payson’s property taxes produce just 6 percent of its budget while the sales tax imposed mostly on those highway frontage businesses provides around 50 percent of the total budget, which means people spending money in stores along the highway provide police and fire protection for residents.
Traffic on the twin highways that split the town into quarters already slows to a crawl on busy holiday weekends in the summer, forcing residents to trickle through a network of surface streets to get from one side of town to another.
Moreover, crashes involving people turning onto the highway or trying to dash across town account for the bulk of the accidents. Virtually every intersection along Highway 87 all the way through town has seen repeated accidents, as have each of the intersections with Highway 260 between the junction with 87 and Manzanita Drive.
The intersection of Manzanita and the highway has the highest crash rate, followed by the intersection of Highways 87 and 260. The highway intersections of Bonita and Goodnow come next.
But if you think it’s bad now: What happens when Payson hits the build-out densities included in the land use element of the General Plan and you’ve got 40,000 residents trying to turn onto that highway — not to mention 6,000 college kids and their absent-minded professors?
The General Plan rewrite proposed a modest list of new roads, “traffic calming” measures like speed humps, painted lanes and narrowed streets to slow traffic and a proliferation of highway traffic circles.
Overall, the plan envisions a ring of wider streets with higher speed limits to move traffic quickly around the outer edge of town without using the highway.
On the east, that highway alternative would start with a new road on the far side of the proposed university campus that connects to Rim Club Parkway, crosses the highway and continues north on Tyler Parkway.
On the west, a wider, higher-speed road would connect to the highway near the Event Center, go north to Main Street, west to Vista then up the hill to Airport, which eventually connects the highway at a roundabout.
The plan also calls for a few short segments of new road and road improvements to extend the existing north-south running alternatives to Highway 87.
That includes finally completing the long-controversial extension of Mud Springs Road. Five years ago, residents of Phoenix Street fought for months to prevent the town from extending Mud Springs to the highway, arguing it would lure people off the highway down the steep and winding Phoenix Street. The council eventually promised to install a series of curbs, signs and striping on Phoenix Street to slow down any diverted traffic in the event it ever actually has money to extend Mud Springs.
The other north-south “minor arterial” streets include Manzanita on the east and McLane on the west. The plan calls for building or improving several streets to extend those, reduce traffic conflicts and increase speeds for cross-town traffic when the highway is clogged.
The town had brushed past most of the proposed extensions and improvements several times in the past. Residents almost always crowd council meetings to complain. For instance, McLane provides a wide, residential street along which many drivers zip to avoid congestion on the highway. However, near the high school, the street twists and turns down a hilly section through a cluster of homes with driveways that empty directly onto the street. Residents have repeatedly crowded the council chambers to demand measures to slow down traffic.
By the same token, the plan calls for the extension of Sherwood Drive, which would connect with existing streets to provide added access to Airport Road. Residents living along the now, quiet residential neighborhood complained vigorously about that plan, which traffic engineers said was critical to accommodate development of more than 200 acres of recently annexed land around the Payson Airport.
The plan also calls for a proliferation of roundabouts to keep traffic moving on the highway with a minimum of accidents.
The draft of the General Plan proposed additional roundabouts on the highway at the intersections with Bonita and Manzanita.
The General Plan draft also noted that most of the development in town remains concentrated on just 13 square miles of its 19-square-mile area. With most development flanking the highways, the town remains compact — with few places more than about three miles from the highway. That ought to make it relatively simple to develop a network of sidewalks and bike paths that would make it easy to get around town without a car, the planners concluded.
But the town has only less than 20 miles of sidewalks and has completed only about half of the planned 50-mile-long Payson Area Trails System. Many streets remain narrow and without curbs, making it a challenge to walk or ride without suffering the whoosh of passing cars.
The General Plan draft called on the town to complete the trails system and make Payson safe for pedestrians, but identified no way to pay for such improvements, no design for an overall system and no estimates of the potential cost.
Before the collapse of the housing market locally, Payson required the builders of any new subdivision to provide sidewalks, trails and connections to the existing network. Since the downturn, the trails system has fallen into limbo — without even the consistent help of the volunteer core that built and maintained the original trail sections.