Lion Springs

The three-mile section of Lion Springs is the only two-lane section of highway between Payson and the Mogollon Rim.

After years of lobbying, officials may finally be ready to go forward with widening State Route 260 outside of Star Valley.

The three-mile Lion Springs section has for years plagued local emergency responders who not only respond to fatal and serious crashes in the narrow two-lane corridor every year, but any time an accident occurs, it creates a bottleneck cutting one side of the district off from the other.

While the project has been placed on the Arizona Department of Transportation’s five-year plan before, the board has always pulled it so it could fund other projects around the state.

Project has broad support

Steven Stratton, a member of the Arizona State Transportation Board, said he pushed the board to approve $5 million in funding at its Aug. 16 meeting, which will go toward the design of widening the roadway to four lanes.

The board unanimously approved funding the design portion of the project.

The governor appointed Stratton to the transportation board four years ago. He is the former public works director for Gila County.

After the board recently completed the 2020-2024 facilities construction program and the Lion Springs section was notably absent, Stratton went to work lobbying the board members to consider an amendment to the plan.

“I had requested an amendment to the five-year plan,” he said. “Originally I was trying to get it designed and constructed at the same time, but we settled on getting (the design) into the five-year plan.”

Stratton believes the design portion should take one to two years to complete. After that, the board has not yet allocated the $50 million needed to construct the new roadway.

Stratton believes ADOT will use a combination of state and federal funds for construction.

Stratton said multiple officials spoke out to support funding the Lion Springs section, including members of the Gila County Board of Supervisors and the Payson Town Council.

“It was a very good cooperative effort,” he said.

Neil Bosworth, forest supervisor with the Tonto National Forest, wrote in a June 19 letter to the Arizona’s Programming Decisions Committee that the Forest Service “strongly supports” the widening project.

He said it would improve traveler safety and address increased traffic flows.

“We understand that this project would reach ADOT’s goal of completing a four-lane divided highway along the entire SR 260 corridor and as a result would have a broad positive impact both locally and regionally,” Bosworth wrote.

He noted the project would provide several benefits:

• Improvements would reduce the proliferation of unauthorized roads and trails on the forest by limiting opportunities for errant egress off the highway.

• Improvements would incorporate modern erosion control features.

• The area has a high density of elk and this has resulted in dangerous elk/vehicle collisions. The planned wildlife crossings would be a significant enhancement to public safety and reduce loss of wildlife because of vehicle collisions.

• The project would improve ability for timely access for Forest Service resource protection, including access needs for fire protection and/or suppression.

Besides the improved resource protection, the Forest Service supports this project as SR 260 is a gateway to many high-use recreation sites and activities on both the Tonto and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests, he said.

“This project would improve the public’s experience in visiting and/or traveling through federal lands by eliminating traffic delays that occur as SR 260 changes from a four-lane divided highway to a two-lane highway within the Lion Springs project area.

“Additionally, the Lion Springs section of SR 260 would connect two sections of the highway that are currently suitable for bicycle traffic,” he wrote.

Andrea Robles, the executive director of Central Arizona Governments (CAG), wrote a letter to the board supporting the project, saying it would improve traveler safety and allow better response times for first responders.

“CAG strongly supports the completion of the SR 260 Lion Springs four-lane divided highway project and respectfully requests the Arizona State Transportation Board to consider preserving the project within the current five-year construction program,” she wrote.

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