Big changes could be in store for downtown Moab’s Main Street by as early as summer of 2019 now that the city has been named a traffic problem “hotspot” by the Utah Department of Transportation.
Of course, the designation wouldn’t mean much if the UDOT didn’t have some money to spend on the problem, which it does thanks to last year’s session of the Utah Legislature.
In Senate Bill 277, passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert, the legislature authorized UDOT to spend up to $100 million on priority projects “that have a significant economic development impact associated with recreation and tourism and alleviate congestion,” according to UDOT’s website.
Those projects were to be limited in areas designated as tourism “hotspots” as designated by the Utah Transportation Commission. Weeks of study and hundreds of public comments later, Moab was placed third on a final list of four such locales — and UDOT has allocated $300,000 for preliminary research into potential solutions.
“The Legislature has been in investing in getting people here, but historically they haven’t been investing as much in trying to accommodate people,” said Mike Hansen, planning director at Rural Community Consultants, a company hired to make hotspot-improvement recommendations to UDOT. “We’ve talked about this year after year and couldn’t get a lot of traction. But I think what finally tipped the scale was [saying], ‘Let’s do something for the locals.’”
While nothing about making things better for local residents appears on UTC’s list of criteria for making hotspot designations, Hansen’s message is very much in line with Moab City Mayor Emily Niehaus’ philosophy, which departs somewhat from the way previous administrations prioritized tourism and marketing.
“What we are doing now is not … throw everything at tourism,” she told Hansen last week during meetings held to glean ideas from local decision makers and other stakeholders about the future of Main Street.
“Do we want to sacrifice Main Street to tourism, or do we want to reclaim it as someplace we go out to dinner, or we go to lunch. I think if residents win, tourists win,” Niehaus said.
“What we’re doing is harvesting existing stuff,” Hansen said. “Our marching orders are to get a list of ideas by mid-January,” in time for UDOT to present that list to the state’s transportation commission for decisions later this year.
Main Street is only one component of a two-pronged strategy UDOT has in mind for Moab. “They’re operating on the assumption of a bypass,” Hansen said.
The mention of a Main Street bypass is likely to be met by local residents with an eye roll and a statement sounding something like, “We’ve heard that before.”
There has been more than one study of a possible bypass, going back at least two decades, Hansen said. If a bypass comes to fruition, he indicated it would be a long-term project. The Main Street project his team is working on, he said, “is for short-term alleviation.”
Hansen also said widening Main Street isn’t really an option. But other suggestions include everything from eliminating on-street parking on Main Street and creating more parking areas close by, to putting in bike lanes, to closing off Main Street’s four downtown blocks altogether and transforming it into a pedestrian promenade instead.
Foreshadowing a likely response to objections to the last of those, Niehaus said, “Data suggests that if you walk by [a business], you’re more likely to go in than if you drive by.”
Niehaus seemed aware that any proposed Main Street solution would almost certainly be met with disapproval. “I want to put every crazy idea out there, so that whatever we decide seems less bad,” she said. No matter what ultimately happens, she recognized, “Somebody’s going to get screwed.”
The mayor wants more information to be part of the process. While there are traffic studies that show traffic volume, there isn’t any data that distinguishes between the types of traffic: cars, 4x4s pulling trailers with “toys,” RVs or big-rig semis, for instance. Niehaus said she wants input from the public, such as the perspectives of Main Street business owners, or how many residents would actually use a bike lane to travel Main Street if one was available.
Those are the kinds of challenges that any city considering changes to its main thoroughfare would have to deal with — the kinds of challenges Hansen has dealt with time and time again in other localities.
Moab presents a special challenge, however, he said. In most other places, he said, options are wide open because of only general ideas about community identity or community vision.
Moab is different, he said, and the town’s character matters a great deal to its residents. “You guys have a very clear idea.”