Highway 180 snowplay traffic

The headlights of cars heading south to Flagstaff form an unending string along Highway 180 on a Sunday evening in January.

Even though it is still summer on the calendar, winter snowplay has been making news in recent weeks, all of it positive for beleaguered local residents trapped in holiday weekend gridlock.

First came news that Wing Mountain and its 500-car parking lot would not be open this winter – the concessionaire has pulled out after a warmish winter that had the tubing hill closed more than it was open. On paper that means less reason for Valley snowplayers to venture north through Fort Valley to Highway 180.

But what if they all just pull off the road and into adjacent neighborhoods instead?

The Sheriff’s Office and ADOT have an answer: Post “No parking” signs up and down the 9-mile corridor and on side roads, then enforce them with citations and even towing.

“It is one small piece of a large, large problem,” said Sheriff Jim Driscoll at a meeting of Supervisor Art Babbott’s ad hoc winter snowplay task force. “The idea of how do you make 10,000 cars go away in an hour is very difficult, but if we can keep them from engaging early on in those behaviors we may be able to reduce it or mitigate it somewhat.”

But if they aren’t playing in the snow off the side of Highway 180, where will they go – assuming they will still come, even with the parking bans?

For that answer, we turn to Jonathan Allen, owner of the Flagstaff Snow Park at Fort Tuthill. His proposal: install snowmaking at his tubing run at Fort Tuthill, thereby getting about 60 days of tubing during the season instead of just 36 last winter.

Allen’s plan is to extend and upgrade existing potable water pipes at the Fairgrounds over to the tubing hill behind the campground. He contends he would need just 1 million gallons a winter to make enough artificial snow to keep the runs covered during warm spells. That’s the equivalent of the amount of water used by 12 Flagstaff households in a year, or a rounding error on the approximately 3 billion gallons that Flagstaff uses a year.

Ideally, all landscape irrigation, including the frozen kind, should come from reclaimed wastewater when possible. But the purple pipes from the Rio treatment plant don’t extend yet to Fort Tuthill, and the 1 million gallons of potable water will more than pay for itself in higher user and water fee revenues -- we’d suggest the county and city chip in to underwrite the cost of the pipes. And the next step might include adding lights to the facility to lengthen the tubing day.

As for those who say a more consistent tubing season will just encourage even more snowplayers to come up from the Valley, we’d point out that they are already coming but not paying for their roadside recreation. Fort Tuthill is south of the congestion corridor while still close enough to lure snowplayers into Flagstaff for dinner and even an overnight hotel stay. If snowmaking at Fort Tuthill is successful, we’d suggest developing other tubing hills around Flagstaff, such as Mars Hill, Oak Hill near Parks and Fay Ridge off Lake Mary Road. Voters might even consider taking the steep slope above Coconino High School alongside Forest Avenue out of passive open space and developing a safe tubing run there. Locals could be given a discount at the sites and early entry on weekends to beat the crowds.

Sheriff Driscoll is correct: Parking tickets alone won’t do the trick in unsnarling snowplay congestion, nor will doubling the season only at Fort Tuthill. But add more tubing sites and keep Wing Mountain closed until only weekend bus access is available in the 180 corridor, and conditions can’t help but improve. If not, then it’s time to pull out the plans for an A-1 Mountain bypass. For this coming winter, let’s focus on the list above of what’s doable, affordable and fun, too.

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