As the summer winds down and NAU students return to campus, mobility – or, rather, congestion – is top of mind in Flagstaff.
In fact, it’s fair to say that today is one of those days that, unless you are a student moving in or the parent of one, it would be wise to avoid the streets around campus. By this time next week, things will be back to normal, which, unfortunately, means the usual commute-hour backups on South Milton, Butler and Humphreys, among others.
Local officials would say there is light at the end of the tunnel – only, it’s a very long tunnel. And in the meantime, each move-in day sees more students arriving in Flagstaff, both on-campus and off, while the street capacity remains the same. This year, NAU will enroll about 22,000 students in Flagstaff (9,800 living on campus) while adding more faculty and staff. That growth is integral to the city’s economy and cultural vibrancy – it’s just that the gridlock on days like today tends to obscure the upside.
The city has several initiatives that take on various aspects of our transportation woes. First up are the new parking meters downtown – the city has advertised an “August” launch, so it is T-minus seven days and counting. The intent is to free up spaces downtown to improve traffic circulation while protecting some on-street parking spaces for adjoining neighbors. The best solution, everyone agrees, is a parking garage or maybe two, but it will take years before the parking fees build up a big enough fund to launch a building.
Then there is the Beulah Boulevard bypass. The idea is to extend Beulah far enough northward to relieve some of the traffic on South Milton. The problem is that the extension runs only to Plaza Way at Milton, a surefire way to create another chokepoint to rival Five Points farther north. At least Mountain Line has added five, new 60-foot articulated buses on the route serving students living in West Flagstaff – kudos all around to a forward-thinking partnership with NAU that continues to leverage millions in state and federal transit grants.
Speaking of Five Points (Milton, Butler, Clay and Mikes Pike), by this time next year, The Hub will be open with 591 students living within one block of the intersection. We’ve been assured the city will synchronize the crosswalk lights along Butler so that drivers aren’t stopping for pedestrians at every curb cut. And when another student project comes along at South Milton and University in several years, the plans call for a pedestrian underpass.
In the meantime, the city is moving toward a November 2018 vote on extending the city transportation sales tax that will underwrite the next generation of road, transit and trail projects worth more than $180 million over 20 years. A commission made up of citizens is being asked to draw up ballot language -- should it be one question or several that are pegged to specific projects? The current tax paid for things like the Fourth Street railroad overpass, while new proposed projects include widening the Lone Tree Road corridor and extending John Wesley Powell Boulevard. Both of those are aimed at redirecting traffic out of the South Milton corridor.
Left off the list are any projects that address the holiday snowplay gridlock in the Fort Valley and Highway 180 corridor. Those are being examined by a separate, ad hoc group spearheaded by county Supervisor Art Babbott. Some have said that 12 to 14 days a year of gridlock aren’t enough to justify a highway widening or a bypass at A1 Mountain. On the other hand, Move-in Day at NAU occurs only once a year – the danger is that unless we plan now for specific congestion relief in both corridors, it will be Move-in Day in Flagstaff most every day of the year.