A small group’s plans to bring passenger train service to Moab are moving full steam ahead, but a few complications may derail the momentum. During a meeting on Sept. 12, the Moab Transit Authority Study Committee discussed updates regarding a rail connection between Moab and Salt Lake City as well as plans for developing a public bus system in Grand County. The committee also reconciled its priorities with those that the Utah Department of Transportation has set for the Moab area. Though it is not one of UDOT’s goals, transit authority members decided to rank rail as the ad-hoc study committee’s primary concern.
There’s a Slow Train Coming
Joe Kingsley, longtime Moab resident and former vice chair of Amtrak, is the transit authority member taking the lead on developing the rail plan. Kingsley claimed the plan to bring passenger train service to Moab is gaining support throughout the community and beyond. He received a letter of support from the Moab Area Travel Council, and he noted that the Moab City Council and the Grand County Council have both approved letters of support that are yet to be composed. Kingsley added, “I have received a letter from the mayor of Price… I received an email from the mayor of Helper and she is also on board.” He also pointed out, “I have not received any comments or feedback of a negative nature.”
Though the response to a potential train service to Moab has been overwhelmingly positive, Kingsley did say he foresees a couple of potential problems. The first is cooperating with UDOT. Kingsley reached out to TeriAnne Newell, UDOT’s deputy director of planning and investments, to inquire about the viability of bringing passenger rail service to Moab. At the meeting, Kingsley shared the letter Newell sent in response. Newell began the letter by describing how Utah “faces significant transportation challenges, with projected needs far outpacing available resources.” She added, “Intercity passenger rail connections, in particular, are very complex.” She cites the prohibitive costs and the requirement of cooperation between private and public stakeholders as complexities that make extending passenger rail service to Moab difficult.
In the letter, Newell writes that UDOT’s planning initiatives for Moab, Grand and San Juan counties include “a review of US-191 bypass options, future land-use and transportation improvements in Spanish Valley, and how to better integrate airport planning with regional community and economic development objectives.” Rail service is not currently part of UDOT’s planning, but the letter expresses the department’s interest in the initiative, so its absence may be temporary. Newell concludes the letter by telling Kingsley that she asked UDOT’s planning director to involve him in the state’s long-range planning for the Moab area.
The second major challenge Kingsley mentioned was creating a consumer-friendly train station near Moab. The area’s topography combined with the necessity to site the station next to the existing rail line makes possible locations quite limited. Kingsley said the current Gemini Bridges trailhead would be an ideal location, but City Council Member Karen Guzman-Newton pointed out that land is privately owned, which could make building a train station there impossible. Notably, the latest version of the community vision plan for the Uranium Mill Tailings Remediation Action project includes a transportation hub that could possibly include rail, though that plan is far from coming to fruition.
Amtrak passenger rail service extends as far as Crescent Junction, so pushing on to Moab via a spur would not be a big stretch. However, another potential problem arises when scheduling is taken into account. “Amtrak’s schedule is not geared to local traffic; it is geared for Chicago and LA traffic,” Kingsley said, pointing out passenger trains inconveniently go through Green River around midnight.
Kingsley said the next step would be to convince the Grand County Council to conduct a feasibility study and economic analysis. In his own financial estimation, Kingsley predicted that at first, rail service would lose money. “However, if UDOT offsets [the start-up costs] … it will pencil out as being in the black,” Kingsley posited. He noted that UDOT may have an incentive to fund the rail project because it will reduce traffic on US Highway 6, especially on the section from Spanish Fork to Price, which Kingsley said the National Highway Safety Administration named the most dangerous stretch of highway in the country in 2012. Since modern train cars are efficient and have lower operating costs, the initial start-up expenses could be the primary financial barrier. If UDOT were to offset the initial cost, then the rail project would be far more likely to become a reality.
Spanish Valley Plan
At its July meeting, the transit authority committee discussed possible routes for a bus system in Moab. As a continuation of that discussion, transit authority chair Michael Liss presented a “seven-neighborhood plan” for Spanish Valley. Liss’s vision is to create a “neighborhood center” every mile on Spanish Valley Drive. The neighborhood centers would include a connector road to US-191, a park and playground, businesses, a bus stop and residential housing that decreases in density the farther it is from the center.
Liss said the inspiration for the plan came from the idea to build a bike route along Spanish Valley Drive as well as San Juan County’s plan to move growth away from the highway and instead focus development efforts in two commercial centers one mile apart on Spanish Valley Drive. The seven-neighborhood plan would continue San Juan’s design concept seven miles up the road into Moab. Liss said the objective of the plan is to create walkable neighborhoods throughout Spanish Valley that could easily be served by public transportation.
“All development now is geared toward tourism,” Liss said as he explained how his plan would benefit locals by creating amenities accessible by a ten-minute walk from most anywhere in Spanish Valley. The plan treats Spanish Valley Drive, not US-191, as the primary transportation route for short-distance travel. Liss said the main impetus for the plan is to shift development away from the highway corridor and to be proactive about developing a public transportation system for Moab. “Instead of planning a bus route trying to find where the people are, why don’t we plan in advance where people are going to be?” Liss wondered.
Other transit authority members, of which there were four in all at the meeting, questioned the practicality of the seven-neighborhood plan. “Reality sets in – this is privately owned property, there are homes there. If it were a blank sheet of paper, yes, but it’s not a blank sheet,” Kingsley said. He noted how most Moabites likely believe property rights supersede planning. Kingsley continued, “This isn’t going to happen unless you make it a target and give it 20 years to happen, but the problem is that doesn’t solve the transportation need. It just makes the transportation plan more efficient in the future.”
Guzman-Newton liked the general concept of the plan but said placing a neighborhood center every mile is far too dense, noting many would be averse to compromising the rural character of the valley. She also brought up water issues. “I think it would behoove everyone to wait for the water study,” Guzman-Newton said, referring to the study being conducted by the United States Geological Survey that seeks to measure water use and water availability for the area. The study was released to stakeholders in July, but it will not be made available to the public until next year. “We are in the arid West; to be ignorant of the fact that we are in a drought would do the community a disservice,” Guzman-Newton said, noting the Colorado River is already over-allocated. Liss responded with a question: “Can you name one town or city that has stopped development because of water?” He mentioned how larger cities like St. George, Las Vegas and Phoenix have not slowed growth despite the scarcity of available water.
After discussing the plan, transit authority members decided to focus on developing bus routes and to send the concept of the seven-neighborhood plan to the Grand County Planning Commission since such long-range planning falls outside the purview of the transit authority study committee. Then, the committee looked at how to reconcile its priorities with those of UDOT for the upcoming presentation to the Grand County Council. Rail was ranked as the top priority, followed in order by the highway bypass, a bus system, transportation in Spanish Valley and airport planning. Liss hopes to present the transit authority’s progress to the Grand County Council later this month.