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Is a regular shuttle connecting St. George and Hurricane to Springdale and Zion National Park in the cards for Washington County? Last week, officials from Springdale, St. George, and Zion National Park gathered at the Five County Association of Government’s Regional Mobility Council meeting to discuss the possibility of establishing daily public transit service to Springdale and Zion.
The plan for creating a permanent shuttle connection to the Zion area is not a new one. In 2010, the Five County Association commissioned a transit study, in part, to assess the demand for and feasibility of such a service. The study demonstrated that there was a significant demand for the service, citing not only tourists to Zion National Park, but also a sizable disabled population in Washington County as well as a large segment of the service industry workforce in the Zion area that commute each day from Hurricane because they cannot afford to live in Springdale.
Jaime Stewart, an advocate for the disabled in Washington County who has been pushing for public transit to Zion for years, talked about the difficulties that transit-dependent disabled people face just trying to accomplish simple day-to-day tasks. Making it to doctor's appointments and keeping the pantry and refrigerator stocked can be difficult when you rely upon the kindness of others for transportation. But what often is not discussed, Stewart said, are quality of life issues.
“Does a transit-dependent population need a quality of life?” she asked. Stewart said that being out in nature “can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope,” quoting naturalist Wallace Stegner. “But not for me,” she continued, “who cannot drive the 44 miles from my home to the gateway of my geography of hope.”
Zion National Park has seen a significant increase in the number of disabled visitors since they established their own shuttle system in 1997, said Jack Burns, chief of concessions management for the park, who also oversees the park’s transit services.
“Since implementation of the transportation system, we’ve seen a 127% increase in wheelchair lifts alone,” Burns said. “That tells us that people come to Zion and Springdale expecting a park-and-ride experience, and that they use the facilities once they are provided.” Burns pointed out that there are more than 63 million disabled people in the U.S., and that the National Parks Service spends millions of dollars each year to help make the parks accessible to everybody.
“It should not be a challenge for people with disabilities to come to the park,” Burns said. “These places belong to all of us.”
Table courtesy of Five County Association of Government "2010 Hurricane to Zion Canyon Transit Study"
Besides helping the disabled access the park, the meeting also addressed how a fixed-route shuttle connecting St. George, Hurricane, and Springdale could make a big difference for the hundreds of service industry workers that work in Springdale but, because of the high cost of living there, commute each day from places like Hurricane, LaVerkin, and Toquerville.
“Springdale and Zion National Park provide a lot of the jobs for residents in the eastern part of Washington County,” said Tom Dansie, community director for the town of Springdale. “And there is no real option for them to get to work except for private vehicles, and that’s a significant transportation cost for them to get to work.”
Having a fixed shuttle to Springdale would not only provide a transportation alternative for those workers, Dansie said, but it would also help disabled people living Springdale and Rockville access needed services in St. George, as well as provide the thousands of international visitors to the area with an easy way to move between St. George and Zion.
“It’s kind of baffling to many of our international travelers that there is no public transportation option,” Dansie said. Tourists from outside of the U.S., especially Europe, he said, expect a public transportation option and are often disappointed to find there isn’t one.
Currently, there isn’t even a commercial service hosting a regular shuttle to Zion, said Levi Roberts, an associate planner with the Five County Association; even if there were, he said, it wouldn’t address many of the problems discussed at the meeting, such as the needs of the disabled and service industry workers.
The 2010 transit study commissioned by the Five County Association to look into the feasibility of a shuttle service revealed what Dansie described as “extraordinary demand” for a regular, fixed public transit route to Springdale. It also modeled several different ways of meeting that demand, along with cost and benefit projections for each option, based on comparisons to similar programs at Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks.
The study determined that a fixed daily route, providing all-day service, would serve the most people, but it would also cost the most to operate per year. While a seasonal route would be much cheaper to operate, it would serve far fewer people and would not provide a good solution for residents needing year-round service. The study recommended a combination of the two solutions, providing fewer routes and fewer stops during the off-season months.
Several funding opportunities were discussed at the meeting. The 2010 transit study identified three federal grant programs that the shuttle system might take advantage of, which could offset some of the capital and operating expenses. However, because the proposed shuttle would be providing access to Zion National Park, it would likely qualify for additional federal grant money, more than a typical county transit line.
Paul Van Dam, a former Utah State Attorney General who is currently running for a seat on the Washington County Commission, also attended the meeting. Van Dam said that because tourism to the park benefits the entire state, it makes sense to have the Utah State Legislature pitch in on the shuttle project.
“Interestingly, when the government got shut down [last September], the State of Utah was able to find a pocket full of money to keep the [national] parks open in Utah,” Van Dam said. “It’s a big moneymaker for the state, so […] in addition to the other federal grants that are available, we might get the legislature or one of our local representatives out here to look at the studies that have been done.”
Roberts suggested that the county might look at partnering with local businesses. A survey held at an April 22 open house in Springdale to discuss the proposed shuttle revealed that one of the most popular reasons Springdale residents would like to have a shuttle is to be able to access Walmart, 25 miles away in Hurricane. The panel discussed the possibility of partnering with Walmart, which would stand to benefit from a shuttle that would provide them access to a wider customer base in Washington County.
As a next step, the group resolved to organize a meeting between representatives from all of the communities along the proposed shuttle route, along with state representatives, to further discuss possible ways a shuttle route to Zion might best be established. A date for that meeting has not yet been set, but Roberts said that he is planning to organize a series of discussions with various community leaders in the coming weeks.