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Our View: Protect neighbors from shortcuts during construction

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Our View: Protect neighbors from shortcuts during construction

Nobody likes to sit in traffic, especially when there is no obvious reason like an accident or funeral procession. When it’s simply a case of too many vehicles on too little pavement at the same time – as during rush hour or a snowplay holiday weekend – drivers who can’t find a detour start looking for someone to blame.

In Flagstaff, the fingers are pointed at elected officials who have overseen more growth than the road system can handle. The blame might be misplaced – instead of, say, the city council or supervisors, look to the Regents and their enrollment growth strategy and affordable four-wheel drive vehicles for the reasons behind congestion near NAU and the Highway 180 corridor, respectively. But officials are taking the complaints to heart, with a transportation tax extension aimed at expanding road capacity and plans for “No parking” enforcement along Highway 180 this winter.

But what about temporary inconvenience tied to road construction that, ultimately, will benefit everyone. Two summers ago, North Leroux and Verde streets were torn up; this year it is North Beaver, Lockett and Zuni, among others. Residents along those streets are inconvenienced and so are drivers asked to squeeze onto already crowded detour roads.

Eventually, though, the work is finished and the neighbors as well as the through drivers are made whole – until the next round of repairs.

But what about during construction – what obligation does the city have to contain the impact of a project to as limited an area as possible or spread it around so no single block or street bears an unfair burden?

Those are the questions swirling around the reconstruction of North Beaver between Columbus and, ultimately, Birch. Because it is one-way southbound, all of the traffic that used to be in two lanes is forced into one southbound lane on Humphreys, which already has its full share of vehicles at rush hour. Now, Humphreys is backed up several light cycles at Aspen and then Route 66 for most of the day, partly because what used to be another southbound corridor – San Francisco Street – has been converted to northbound only.

Some have suggested that the city should temporarily switch San Francisco back to two lanes while North Beaver is closed. But that would require removing dozens of one-way and right- and left-turn only signs, plus re-educating a generation of drivers, many of whom have never driven southbound on San Francisco. And then, in just a year, they would all have to unlearn those new driving habits.

Others are taking matters into their own hands and using Leroux, which is 11 feet narrower, as a southbound through street to avoid the backups on Humphreys. Neighbors complained of similar shortcuts more than a decade ago when the one-way streets were implemented on either side of Leroux, and the city responded. It installed a concrete island at the head of the street to keep drivers on Columbus from whipping into a turn without slowing down. And it prohibited downhill lefthand turns across traffic from Columbus into Leroux to increase safety for drivers and pedestrians alike.

But after Leroux residents complained that too many short-cutters were making illegal turns, police set up patrols and started issuing tickets. If they had their way, said some, they’d set up “Local Traffic Only” barriers for the duration of the project. Drivers have pushed back on social media, asking why Leroux residents deserve a nearly empty street when two blocks away southbound Humphreys is nearly a parking lot for most of the day?

Our sense is that there may be a solution midway between the two extremes. Since our front-page story last week publicized the citations and the concerns of neighbors, illegal left turns have gone down. But more drivers are now aware of the detour (it is still legal to make a right turn into Leroux if heading eastbound on Columbus), so we doubt that net traffic volume has decreased much.

We always maintained that residential streets should be for local traffic only – once through-drivers start using them as shortcuts, the main arterials will never get expanded until even the neighborhoods are jammed. But what if during Beaver construction, the city allows left turns but lowers the speed limit on Leroux to 15 mph and installs speed “humps” to enforce the new limit? And for good measure, the city should install stop signs at every cross street, not every other one.

Yes, the extra traffic for the next year would mean children riding bikes or playing ball in the roadway would need to be more careful – we’d take a one-year timeout, were we a parent living on the street. But after Beaver is reopened, what if the speed humps and extra stop signs remained, but left turns were again made illegal? And for good measure, the concrete median, dubbed the “submarine” by neighbors, could be widened even more – only a NASCAR driver could weave his way around it at high speed without losing a fender.

So far, the only enforcement mechanism has been the left-hand turn tickets by police. But the city traffic commission has the power to do more, or at least to recommend further measures to the council. Short of putting up traffic barriers, Leroux is going to have through traffic during the Beaver project through next summer, like it or not. Why not take further action to slow it down before someone gets seriously hurt.