Each morning, Moab local Kenny Gorham sets up his mobile mountain bike rental shop, Bighorn Mountain Bikes, at the Gemini Bridges turnoff from Highway 191, across from the Moab Brand trail system. While the business has been bustling this fall, he has noticed that the steady stream of visitors comes at a cost — the increased traffic coming into town is causing daily traffic backups on the north end of the valley. The congestion is exacerbated by an ongoing construction project on Highway 191, stretching from 400 North in town to Highway 128.
“It’s horrendous for me,” said Gorham, who commutes to and from the rental location each morning and evening. “I’m in traffic for two hours.”
In spite of the hassle, he sees the positive side of the situation.
“It’s good to have all these people for business,” he said.
Pandemic lingers but tourist industry is robust
Moab tourism is back in full swing after the coronavirus pandemic temporarily gutted the spring season. Finance officers from both Moab City and Grand County report that summer sales tax numbers, which are used as indicators for tourism, have exceeded those from 2019.
“August and July both come in 109% of what we did last year,” said Moab City Finance Director Klint York in an Oct. 13 report to the council. “Moab’s busy, everyone knows it. You can see it, you can’t get into town without a long wait.”
Similarly, Grand County’s July sales taxes were 109.65% of the 2019 figure for the same time period. There is an approximately two-month delay between when customers pay sales taxes at the register and when those monies appear in local coffers, so more recent sales tax data is not available, but the trends point to more economic activity and increased visitation.
Highway widening project soldiers on
At the same time that visitors are flocking to town, road crews are working steadily on a long-term highway widening project on Moab’s main artery. The project is intended to relieve congestion in the long run; currently, Highway 191 narrows from four lanes to two lanes along the section north of town, creating a bottleneck before widening again at 400 North.
Undertaken by the Utah Department of Transportation in partnership with the City of Moab, the project will add an additional lane of traffic on each side of the highway as well as a curb, gutter and sidewalk, a center turn lane where possible, an improved stormwater drainage system and an extension of the multi-use pathway.
With an expected timeline of about 18 months, UDOT officials say they knew the project was always going to coincide with at least one busy tourist season.
“We understand that this has been a difficult project, and we knew that going into this,” said Ryan Anderson, UDOT’s project manager for the undertaking.
Kevin Kitchen, regional communications manager for UDOT, said the project has stayed on schedule so far and is set to be completed in June of 2021. Kitchen said crews are working diligently to have two lanes of traffic open in each direction by the spring of 2021.
Anderson said crews working on the project have also noticed the uptick in visitation.
“Moab appears to be having a strong fall,” he said.
Coping with the delay
An Oct. 15 video posted to a community Facebook page shows bumper-to-bumper southbound cars backed up well north of the entrance to Arches National Park. Comments on the video from residents describe the traffic as both “crazy” and “the norm,” at least during the ongoing construction. Some comments lament the increase in tourism; others welcome the tourists, in spite of the resulting traffic congestion, acknowledging that many businesses in town could use the economic boost.
Gorham said that on some weekends, he can see the line of brake lights all the way from his location on 191.
Gorham has also heard complaints from friends in the local industry that rental bikes are often being returned late, as renters don’t expect to be stuck in traffic for so long after riding one of the many popular trail systems north of town. He advises his customers to plan their day to avoid driving into town from the north between 3 and 10 p.m.
Mati Kotoa works at SpringHill Suites by Marriott Moab, a hotel located just north of the Colorado River Bridge. She said the traffic is backed up past the premises where she works every day.
“It’s affecting our customers a little bit. Some of them have to wait over an hour to get to the hotel and it’s hard when they want to get into town,” Kotoa said.
It also takes her longer to commute to and from work through the traffic.
Gorham said he’s managing the long commute by listening to lectures he needs to absorb for his Environmental Science degree, but it’s not ideal.
“I just get mentally prepared, before I leave, to sit in traffic for an hour,” he said.
Visitors rush Moab while construction clogs highway
“It’s horrendous. I’m in traffic for like, two hours.”
– Kenny Gorham