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5:53 AM Thu, Dec. 13th

4 lanes through the Dells? City’s public works department broaches possibility of widening Hwy. 89

The 2-mile section of Highway 89 through the Granite Dells remains as a two-lane segment. City officials have listed a widening to four lanes as one of the projects that will be needed over the next 10 years. They say 50 percent of the $8.6 million cost would be eligible to be paid through growth-related impact fees on new homes. (Cindy Barks/Courier)

The 2-mile section of Highway 89 through the Granite Dells remains as a two-lane segment. City officials have listed a widening to four lanes as one of the projects that will be needed over the next 10 years. They say 50 percent of the $8.6 million cost would be eligible to be paid through growth-related impact fees on new homes. (Cindy Barks/Courier)

For nearly 20 miles from Prescott to northern Chino Valley, a divided four-lane roadway will soon be in place all along the busy Highway 89 route.

Except for a short gap through the Granite Dells.

Through that scenic section, Highway 89 dwindles to two lanes from just north of the Willow Lake Road roundabout to just south of the new Phippen roundabout.

The stretch of highway — much of which is bordered on both sides by alternating granite walls — has long been deemed too difficult to even consider a road-widening effort.

But now, city officials are broaching the possibility of widening the gap to make the 2-mile section consistent with the rest of Highway 89.

The matter came up briefly at last week’s Prescott City Council study session, when Public Works Director Craig Dotseth included an $8.6 million widening of Highway 89 from Willow Lake Road to the new Phippen Trail as one of the future projects that could qualify for help from development-related impact fees.

Dotseth’s presentation proposed that 50 percent of the cost for the widening, or about $4.3 million, would come from street impact fees that future home builders would pay to the city.

EARLY STAGES

Still, Dotseth emphasized that the proposal — and indeed all of the impact-fee discussion — was in its very preliminary stages. In order for the project to happen as proposed, the City Council would still need to approve new growth-related street impacts fees, as well as the Dells-area highway widening project.

And that apparently will generate some debate. Council members expressed surprise last week at the idea of widening the highway through the Dells.

“We’re going to blow up the Dells?” Councilman Steve Blair asked in response to the highway widening idea.

City Manager Michael Lamar pointed out that the public works department had put forward projects that are needed to improve traffic in the area. But, he told the council, “You make the determination.”

After the meeting, Dotseth explained that his department had proposed the Dells-area highway widening because the 2-mile stretch currently creates a bottleneck for traffic on Highway 89. And the situation is expected to get worse as traffic numbers grow.

“We can’t stick our head in the sand; we have to bring it up,” Dotseth said. “We have to bring out the ideas, even as hard as that might be.”

Of the Tuesday, Nov. 13 presentation, Dotseth said, “We brought forward a concept that the council had never seen before.”

But there will be plenty of opportunity in the future for further discussion.

Budget and Finance Director Mark Woodfill outlined a schedule for impact-fee consideration that includes at least seven future council discussion, beginning with a Jan. 22, 2019, public hearing on land use assumptions and infrastructure improvements, and continuing with meetings in February, March, April, and May.

TRAFFIC IMPLICATIONS

Although Highway 89 is a state highway, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) recently turned over jurisdiction for the stretch from the Highway 89A interchange to about the VA Medical Center to the City of Prescott.

And Alvin Stump, ADOT’s district engineer, said the section to the north — from the 89A interchange to the Deep Well Ranch Road roundabout, which is currently being widened by the state — would also be turned over to the city after the ongoing improvement project is complete.

While that leaves the decision for the widening through the Dells up the city, Stump agreed that the two-lane section would have a growing adverse effect on traffic flow on the highway.

Traffic counts in the area show about 18,000 trips per day in the area, Stump said.

“Once it gets to 15,000 trips per day, you really need to think about widening,” Stump said, adding, “At 20,000, you’ll really start to notice (the impacts on traffic).”

Dotseth and Ian Mattingly, the city’s traffic engineer, say the two-lane section would result in a significant slow-down in traffic, as southbound traffic transitions from four lanes in the Phippen roundabout to two lanes through the Dells.

Increased traffic from the already approved Deep Well Ranch, Walden Ranch, and Granite Dells Estates projects will serve to increase the traffic impacts, they say.

“The traffic times will go up,” Mattingly said.

IMPACT TO THE DELLS

While all of the road experts agree that some blasting would be required to build two more road lanes through the Dells, they also agree that the impacts would not be as dire as expected.

“I’ve looked at it, and I think it could be done with a lot less impact than what people might expect,” Stump said.

The original highway, which Stump said appears to date back to about 1957, required a certain amount of blasting in the Dells. Cuts on the rock walls are still visible.

Dotseth pointed out that much of the stretch of road through the Dells has open areas on one side of the highway or the other. By curving the road slightly, he said, the widening could take advantage of those areas and minimize the impacts to the Dells.

“It would look really the same as it does now; there would just be a vertical wall,” Dotseth said of a widened road section.

If the City Council does decide to move forward with street impact fees and put those revenues toward the Highway 89 widening, Dotseth said the project would have to be done within the next 10 years.

Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter @Cindy_Barks. Reach her at 928-445-3333, ext. 2034, or cbarks@prescottaz.com.