In addition to state efforts to find solutions for Highway 180 and Milton Road traffic, the Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority, or NAIPTA, is creating its own plan for the corridor.
The transit agency’s planning focuses on transit services, alternate routes and highway access options to improve wintertime travel along the highway just north of Flagstaff, said Kate Morley, a planner with NAIPTA. The agency’s planning effort is funded through a $220,000 grant from the Arizona Department of Transportation.
“(Highway) 180 is a chronic community issue and we believe transit and NAIPTA can be a part of the solution,” said Jeff Meilbeck, CEO and general manager of NAIPTA.
NAIPTA is starting by collecting traffic data for the 180 corridor, Morley said. One source of that data is aggregated cell phone records that don’t show people’s personal information but indicate where they are coming from and where around Flagstaff they go, whether that be Snowbowl, somewhere along Highway 180 or the snowplay area at Fort Tuthill, Morley said. NAIPTA will purchase historic cell phone data for several high-traffic winter weekends in the past to analyze travel trends among visitors, Morley said.
Doing so can allow the agency to evaluate the potential effectiveness of actions like rerouting visitors to the Grand Canyon through Williams instead of through the 180 corridor, she said.
Traffic counts collected by ADOT will help verify and supplement the cell phone data, she said.
Historic traffic patterns will also be used to inform recommendations for increased bus service, park and rides and rider amenities along Highway 180, Morley said. Knowing high-traffic times during the winter will help NAIPTA suggest certain bus schedules and frequencies that could best serve snowplay-seekers, she said.
Another prong of NAIPTA’s plan involves getting legal advice on the ability for state or local authorities to close or limit access to Highway 180. Charging fees for access to the highway or closing the road on high-use days while allowing only residents and buses to get through was one of the ideas discussed at a public meeting on snowplay congestion in March hosted by Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott. After that meeting, Babbott organized a citizens task force focused on winter recreation issues that has continued to meet and discuss different solutions to the snowplay congestion problem. An agency task force meets as well to consider the same issues.
NAIPTA’s goal is to produce answers and solid analysis for proposals and questions that have been floated by those groups and others in the past.
“The point is to know crystal clear, once and for all, what are our options, if any, and what do we want to do about it,” Meilbeck said.
Another idea that came up at past snowplay meetings was that of alternate routes that people could use to exit the Highway 180 corridor without having to wind through Flagstaff.
As part of its plan, NAIPTA is analyzing five specific routes, four of which would use Forest Service and county roads to connect Highway 180 to Interstate-40 or Highway 89. The other would direct people to head north on Highway 180, south on Highway 64 and east on I-40.
For each route, NAIPTA will look at costs to upgrade and improve the roads to a standard that would support wintertime traffic, long-term maintenance requirements, approximate drive times and distances, expected use, major implementation steps, and general support or opposition from the public.
Several of the routes would need at least some improvements and one route would require the construction of a road south of Baderville, Morley said.
Marketing and messaging that aligns with ADOT will be another component of the plan, she added.
NAIPTA will identify a range of solutions by this spring, then put those out for public input before coming up with a narrower list of recommendations, she said. For those, the agency will create an implementation plan that includes details like how each recommendation could be funded and who would be responsible for implementing it, Morley said.
The goal is to finish that implementation plan by next October so some of the solutions can be rolled out during next year’s winter season, Morley said. A series of surveys would then assess how people feel progress is being made in the corridor.