Transit Authority gets feedback on draft traffic plan
by Nathaniel Smith
The Times-Independent
Jun 21, 2018 | 1275 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The man spearheading an effort to overhaul the transportation system at Arches National Park got feedback, including some criticism, at a Tuesday meeting of the Moab Transit Authority Study Committee. Michael Liss, who is chairing the innovative effort, presented a draft of his proposal and pitched the plan as a way to redesign the park for the future. The main thrust of Liss’s plan is to shift the priorities of the park from private cars to public transportation, biking and walking. Liss developed the plan as an alternative to the advance reservation system proposed by the National Park Service.

The plan remains a draft; it has already been altered from its initial reveal about three months ago and will likely continue to change as more input is received. Idealistic and innovative, some are concerned that the plan isn’t practical.

Moab resident and Transit Authority board member Emily Campbell raised concerns about how the plan would impact the community. “How do we sell this to locals?” she asked. Campbell suggested federal funding could be used to create city bus routes and improve county roads rather than focusing on improvements that will mainly affect tourists. She suggested that a phased development plan might be easier to justify than the sweeping overhaul proposed by Liss. Campbell also added that the Transit Authority should be asking, “How can we balance the tourism industry against local needs?”

City Economic Development Director and Transit Authority member Zacharia Levine also expressed concerns that the Transit Authority may be too Arches-centric. Levine stated the board should “establish the boundaries of what we’re going to focus on as a committee…the group really needs to collectively start to identify some of the goals, objectives and boundaries.” Levine said his personal interest was more to work towards developing public transportation in Moab and the surrounding region rather than focusing on the park. If Arches continues to be the group’s main topic of discussion, Levine argued, “I don’t think it’s worth having another meeting without having a Park Service representative here and a UDOT representative here because as great as the plan is, it has been developed in a vacuum…it’s been informed by other people, but it’s meaningless without the Park Service being a central partner.”

Liss responded to Levine’s critiques by arguing that Arches is just one of the Transit Authority’s three focus areas, along with the more vague “other visitor transportation needs” and “resident transportation needs.” He also said focusing on a particular problem helps to generate more creative solutions that can filter out to other issues. As for Park Service cooperation, Liss said the local Park Service personnel “don’t even want to talk to me.” However, he claimed regional and national Park Service employees he has been in contact with were “incredibly nice… and totally into it [the plan].”

The main quantitative goal of the plan is to get 75 percent of visitors to use shuttles and bicycles to explore the park rather than their personal cars. The design calls for an initial capacity of 5,000 visitors per day. It is notable that Liss’s plan points out that the park currently averages 4,200 visitors per day, but has reached a peak of 6,300 in a single day. The plan also seeks to make Arches “the First Fully Sustainable, Solar Powered, Zero Vehicle Emissions National Park in the Nation.” As for Moab, Liss writes that the Arches initiative would establish the town as “a creative, innovative, and tech-savvy community.” The plan relies on adding two new entrances to the park, along with building welcome centers at each. The Willow Springs Road and the Salt Valley Road, both currently unpaved, would serve as the new gateways to Arches.

As for the public transportation side of the plan, the strategy is to create a shuttle system with three different road networks that each use a different type of vehicle. The first is a route along Hwy. 191 that would use electric buses to carry people from the Salt Valley Road to the San Juan County Line with stops at each park entrance and points in Moab and along the highway. In the park itself, the primary route would use “40 passenger UNIMOG-style elevated vehicles.” The route would have seven stops on the main Arches road. From each of the seven stops, there would be a secondary Jeep network. This would involve creating a whole new grid of narrow roads only traveled by the ten-passenger custom-built Jeep transports. Liss believes this three-tiered transportation system would simultaneously reduce traffic congestion and trail crowding. The process of transitioning to progressively smaller capacity vehicles is meant to avoid the problem of instant congestion seen at Zion National Park when a busload of people is dropped off at a single trailhead.

Liss thinks the unique vehicles will draw people to the shuttle system, but he also plans on using pricing as a motivating tool. By charging a higher fee for private cars, the shuttle could be subsidized and sold as the more economical option.

In conjunction with the expanded road system, Liss wants to greatly increase the number of hiking trails available. Arches now has 15 trails advertised in its publications and Liss wants to take that number up to 34. The hikes would all be one-way and mostly in the ten-minute to one-hour range in terms of length. All the new trails would be along the main road. According to Liss, only 20 of the park’s 2,100 arches are listed in the park brochure and he would like to highlight far more. Currently, the plan does not include any specific locations for the wealth of new trails.

Since Moab is a biking mecca, making Arches more accessible to bikes is a major component of the plan. A bike rental and share program would be implemented with the goal to “give all visitors the opportunity to visit Arches National Park on a bike, in a safe way, on dedicated trails.” The plan calls for the park to provide a fleet of traditional bikes and a fleet of e-bikes, so visitors of varying fitness levels could see the park by bike. The idea is that there would be bike racks at every trailhead, so a person could drop their bike, walk the one-way trail, then pick up a different bike or ride the shuttle back. This would require transponders on the bikes and worn by each visitor, so bike requirements could be tracked from a central control center and the fleet could be repositioned as needed. The plan also included developing another set of trails exclusive to bikes.

Given Moab’s hiring difficulties and affordable housing issues, many who see Liss’s plan will likely question how this new system will find enough employees to function. Liss has an answer that he calls the Arches ambassador program. Liss proposes to “recruit, train and retain the best people to serve as ‘guides/drivers’ of our shuttles.” He claims, “This will be the best job in Moab.” These “ambassadors” will have to demonstrate deep knowledge of the area by passing a rigorous exam. In return, the guides will be well compensated and could earn ratings and tips through a computer application comparable to Uber. Many would be hired as seasonal interns.

The plan also involves an employee housing initiative that would construct communal housing “pods” at the shuttle stops in Spanish Valley. In Liss’s conception these pods would have apartments for 12 people who would have their own rooms but share a kitchen and other facilities. There would also be larger private units for full-time employees and Park Service staff.

Of course, the burning question is how such a massive plan could be funded. Liss argues that the focus on a National Park would give access to “a wide variety of state and federal funds.” The first source of funding in Liss’s plan would be to approach the Utah Department of Transportation. Liss thinks sources of federal funding may include monies currently used by the park, funding for rural communities and perhaps from “the expected Trump Infrastructure Initiative.” Liss believes there is a broad pool of possible options to find the initial capital needed for this plan. As for the ongoing operational costs, Liss plans on making the new system pay for itself. “Our objective is to establish user fees for the shuttles and bikes at levels that will result in a profitable operation,” Liss wrote in the plan. There are also outlines of marketing strategies to emphasize areas in the park other than Delicate Arch.

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