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Keeping it moving

A pair of Flagstaff police officers keeps traffic moving at the intersection of Highway 180 and Humphreys Street in January 2010. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun, file)

We're in the 15th year of hand-wringing over Flagstaff's snow-fueled gridlock.

Government agencies have periodically outlined winter traffic problems since 1996, sharing tales of trashed neighborhoods or parents stuck on Highway 180 for hours with children who need bathrooms.

And then annually, aside from some redistribution of sledding sites, nothing major changes.

Now there might be cause for a little renewed optimism for residents living off Highway 180 or otherwise frustrated by the traffic there.

The agency in charge of planning regional transportation will spend as much as $100,000 to measure traffic and suggest ways to untangle it.

The Flagstaff Metropolitan Planning Organization is working with Northern Arizona University's engineering students to measure traffic on big snow weekends here, then seeking advice from an outside planner on what to do about it.

The students want to answer questions such as How long? How stuck? Are alternate routes any better?

This involves capturing data from mobile phones of people stuck in traffic this month and next, then using the signals to measure how long it takes groups of vehicles to get around.

STAGGER AND DISPERSE

Possible fixes on 180 could include making flexible temporary lanes that allow two lanes of traffic into or out of Flagstaff (using shoulders and turn lanes), reprogramming traffic lights on some weekends, and staggering opening and closing times for groups of skiers and sledders to spread out their arrival and departure times, said Flagstaff Metropolitan Planning Organization Manager David Wessel.

Other options could involve dispersing some to Lake Mary Road and other areas, or giving skiers and sledders a solid estimate of how long it will take them to get to Flagstaff if they leave Arizona Snowbowl at 2 p.m., vs. an hour later, based again on those signals from mobile devices like cell phones.

The same could be true of routing traffic other directions in Flagstaff, Wessel said: If the signs told drivers it would take them 45 minutes to get to the interstate by going down Humphreys Street, but only 15 minutes by taking the bypass over Switzer Canyon Drive, that might be compelling.

"If we can capture that there is an actual advantage to going that way, we can start informing people in a real-time way," Wessel said.

The contract to suggest possible solutions is expected to be issued in February, a report issued in October, and solutions up for implementation next winter.

TIME TO GET SERIOUS

From the U.S. Forest Service to the state transportation department, about 13 local agencies and businesses have met regularly to discuss the traffic over the years.

Flagstaff voters have batted down a new highway bypass and a taxpayer-funded sledding hill in the city.

At Coconino County on Tuesday afternoon, Supervisor Carl Taylor again called for the formation of a legally empowered "winter recreation authority" to sort out the traffic by launching shuttles or other means.

"I really think we should get serious," Taylor said.

The situation this weekend was simply too many cars on Highway 180 and nowhere to send them, said Jim Driscoll, of the Coconino County Sheriff's Office.

"We need to look at other areas" to send sledders besides 180, he said.

This many tourists should be advantageous, said Mandy Metzger, chairwoman of the county supervisors.

"It's a serious safety issues, but it's also a serious opportunity if we can find a way to lean more on the opportunity side of it," she said.

Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 or ccole@azdailysun.com.

Some possible fixes

-- Add center flex lane to Highway 180 to send two lanes of traffic in one direction.

-- Change timing of traffic signals to allow more traffic off 180 and onto Humphreys during single cycle.

-- Develop electronic signs that let drivers know the estimated wait in traffic based on departure times

-- Have snowplay areas stagger closing times to spread out departing traffic

-- Direct arriving crowds to new snowplay areas elsewhere in the region.

-- Add shuttle buses between Flagstaff and ski and sledding areas

By the numbers

Snowbowl's first nine days:

100 -- Percentage of terrain open

3,675 -- Skier count on busiest day (Dec. 28)

26,000 -- Total skier count

30,000 -- Number of additional skiers if Snowbowl had opened at Thanksgiving with snowmaking

60 -- Percentage of skiers from out of town

25 -- Inches of new snow that fell Dec. 29-30

35 to 58 -- Inches of settled snow depth

250 -- Number of skiers turned away Jan. 1 when lots reached capacity

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