Bypass: Easier said than done?

By Doug McMurdo • The Times-Independent

If Moab is ever going to have a Main Street traffic-reducing bypass in its future, local governments are going to have to put one into an official comprehensive transportation plan.

If ever something sounded easier said than done, this is it.

The Moab Transit Authority Study Committee met with a handful of Utah Department of Transportation officials to discuss a number of issues earlier this month. The informal roundtable revealed the following: UDOT Region Director Rick Torgerson made it clear no bypass will be built if it isn’t part of a community’s official transportation plan.

The plan is going to have to be signed off on by majorities of the City of Moab and Grand County councils.

Any bypass is going to be expensive – perhaps as much as $250 million.

One reason for that is elected officials are adamantly opposed to any bypass plan that would have a negative impact on existing neighborhoods.

With little land available on which to build the bypass, and no appetite to make homeowners unhappy in, for example, the Mountain View neighborhood off of Kane Creek Boulevard, one potential option would be to build a tunnel under Highway 191 – at a roughly estimated cost of a quarter-billion dollars.

Not only would a tunnel cost a fortune, building one that would go under a highway and two creeks would be an engineering nightmare, said Kirk Thornock of UDOT.

Other communities in Utah also seek bypasses to route pass-through traffic off main streets – and they don’t have the same problems. Also, the need for a Moab bypass is not as great as it is in the much heavier traveled Salt Lake City metro area.

These issues and others have some in the region believing it’s too late to build a bypass, according to Mayor Emily Niehaus, a member of the Moab Transit Authority Study Committee, which includes Canyonlands Airport Director Judd Hill, Grand County Community and Economic Development Director Zacharia Levine, City Council Member Karen Guzman-Newton and Michael Liss, its chair.

Liss in the recent past has presented a number of well-received PowerPoint presentations regarding the committee’s vision to reduce freight traffic on Main Street. There is $10 million in state funds available to build a multistory parking garage, but that would do nothing to get trucks off the street. UDOT estimates as much as 80 percent of truck traffic is pass-through, but most passenger car drivers who head into town will stop at least long enough to get fuel or food, if Moab isn’t the specific destination.

Liss in a post-meeting summary provided to committee members pointed out UDOT Planner Jeff Sanders considers Liss’ proposed access management plan for Highway 191 “basically the foundation for our regional transportation plan.” Liss recommended the councils critique and expand his proposal – which was explained in a report published in the Nov. 15 edition of The Times-Independent.

Liss said there are other steps that can be taken to make the project’s construction and its cost more palatable to local residents and UDOT. Liss has also suggested local government pursue federal grants, as well as state funding.

In the meantime, he said, the city and county must establish and protect rights of way the project will require.

In an unrelated matter, UDOT announced it has funded a $50,000 study regarding a passenger rail connection between Moab and Salt Lake City.