Sometimes pleading and pressure actually work.
In its final draft, the Arizona Department of Transportation recommended the State Transportation Board include a $40 million plan to widen to four lanes a final section of Highway 260 between Payson and the Mogollon Rim.
The board will vote on the proposal today.
ADOT’s five-year program sets priorities for the next five years and has drawn back from stressing projects to extend the highway system statewide, a dramatic change for the agency.
ADOT spokesperson Laura Douglas said despite the recommendation, the board may still decide to apply limited funds to maintenance rather than major projects, which could still knock the Lion Springs project out, she said.
As part of the planning process, ADOT drafted three scenarios. Scenario A focused on maintaining the existing highway system with the little investment in major new projects. Scenario B focused on big projects and Option C, was a combination of both.
The public had a chance to comment on those scenarios beginning March 8.
ADOT received nearly 4,000 comments, which it posted online. ADOT left out the identities of the people making the comments.
A quick review of those comments shows that supporters of the Lion Springs expansion flooded ADOT with comments, including residents, tourists and local officials. The rush of comments came after local officials appealed for support and the Roundup wrote several articles about the possibility Lion Springs would drop off the list.
One Star Valley councilor wrote “That is a deadly stretch of road and I hope Alternative B will be considered. It is even more dangerous now that traffic is accustomed to driving on a wide stretch of comfortable highway coming down from the Rim and then suddenly without warning entering a narrow stretch of road with no shoulders and sharp curves,” the councilor wrote.
Other residents implored ADOT to finish the project.
“It just does not make sense that you would construct Preacher Canyon, Christopher Creek, Kohls Ranch and the Little Green Valley segments and not finish the entire corridor,” one person wrote.
Another person, who drives to New Mexico frequently, wrote how frightening the two-lane section is to drive.
“I last drove it during snow and fog at night and was exhausted from six hours of driving in winter conditions. I was in a heavily loaded SUV going down the Rim, so had to be exceptionally alert, a difficult task due to fatigue,” the driver wrote.
And another wrote how congested the roadway can get on holiday weekends. “I take my RV up on the Rim and it is crazy when things get backed up on a one lane road east of Star Valley. The whole project is almost ready to be completed. Why stop now?”
Whichever option the board chooses, funding remains a critical issue.
ADOT is grappling with how to cut $350 million over the next five years due to declining federal funding and gas and vehicle license taxes.
Douglas said the department could no longer rely on these funding sources.
“This has uncovered the need to talk about funding projects in a whole new and different way,” she said.
ADOT Director John Halikowski said the department is at a crossroads.
“The time has come to make some tough decisions about how to spend our limited transportation dollars,” he said. “We are standing at a wide funding gap between the need for future transportation options and the reality of insufficient funds.”
If approved, the Lion Springs section would cost $42 million. ADOT has already spend roughly $300 million on the widening project, which is turning the fatality-plagued stretch of highway to the top of the Mogollon Rim into a divided, four-lane highway.
Gila County has promised to put up $2.4 million, a 6 percent match, for the Lion Springs section.