Elected officials said they felt “sideswiped” and “upset” to see the concept of a downtown bypass appear on the agenda at an Oct. 30 joint meeting of the Moab City Council, the Grand County Commission, and the Arches Hotspot Region Coordinating Committee, stating that they felt it took focus away from the Hotspot project proposals and had stirred up unnecessary controversy in the community.

“I just wonder how many times we have to say ‘no,’ how many times we have to hear from our neighbors that they don’t want this,” said City Councilmember Tawny Knuteson-Boyd.

Most of the agenda items at the meeting revolved around the committee’s suite of proposed local infrastructure projects that could be awarded potentially millions of dollars in Recreation Hotspot Funding from the Utah Transportation Commission. However, the bypass discussion generated the most public comment and some of the most heated remarks from officials.

Bypass redux

Arches Hotspot Region Coordinating Committee Chair and Commissioner Curtis Wells and Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus added the bypass discussion item to the meeting’s agenda. The two emphasized that the item was only a temperature reading of local support for the idea, not an initiation of a project.

“The point of this agenda item was to… pose the question, ‘do we want to continue discussion around the concept in support of a bypass?’” explained Niehaus. “And if we do, then what that would do is trigger public hearings and community outreach. There would be significant outreach to the community so that we could feel confident that we’ve got support.”

Niehaus and Wells said the timing of the discussion mattered, as the bypass could be broached at scheduled meetings with the Utah Department of Transportation and the Utah Transportation Commission.

When the state legislature passed Senate Bill 277, which created the one-time Hotspot funding opportunity in 2017, local Moab officials considered the possibility of applying for the money to be used for a downtown bypass, a concept that has been floated at various times over the last several decades. In 2018, UDOT commissioned transportation consulting company Fehr & Peers to analyze the costs and benefits of a Moab downtown bypass and to draft possible routes and methods.

Two draft alternatives surfaced from the study: Alternative 1A would route traffic from Highway 191 onto Potash Road, and over a proposed bridge across the Colorado River onto Kane Creek Boulevard at The Portal. The bypass would reconnect with Highway 191 at the Kane Creek/191 intersection. In Alternative 1D, the route would be similar, except instead of rejoining 191 on Kane Creek Boulevard, it would continue on a new road behind the Mountain View residential neighborhood, rejoining the highway near Dogwood Avenue.

Other bypass possibilities were examined in the 2018 study, including creating a section of one-way “couplets” on Main Street, directing traffic along 500 West, or creating a regional bypass that would avoid Moab altogether. Each of these was eliminated in the Fehr & Peers study for various reasons.

The agenda summary signed by Niehaus and Wells says that “the concept alternative that received consensus was a tunnel, where the bypass would be completely underground.” This alternative would avoid impacting residential neighborhoods with increased noise, pollution and congestion, but would be extremely costly. During initial Hotspot Funding discussions, the bypass was discarded as too expensive to be a realistic candidate for the funds, and was again set aside.

Proponents say a bypass would decrease congestion, noise and pollution downtown by relocating all through-traffic, including commercial freight trucks and private vehicles, away from downtown Moab. Critics say that most of the city’s traffic problems are caused by trucks and cars whose final destination is Moab, that the project is too expensive to be worth the benefits, and that moving the noise, pollution and congestion to another part of town, particularly to residential areas, creates a new problem rather than solving the current one.

In submitted written comments, several citizens also pointed to geologic studies conducted in the proposed tunnel area which indicate unstable conditions.

In 2015, a dramatic sinkhole appeared beneath a residence on Doc Allen Drive. The Utah Department of Natural Resources conducted an analysis of the area in response that found that gypsum soils in the area could result in future ground deformation. The 2015 analysis reads, in part, “Further building in the [Allen subdivision, on Doc Allen Drive] should be curtailed, until additional information is available that indicates if building is possible with mitigation, or should be prohibited. Additional development on the Paradox Formation (exposed at the ground surface) north of Huntridge Drive will likely not be possible.”

Twenty-seven citizens submitted written comments opposing a bypass; another three wrote to express possible support for some kind of bypass, but not one of the two alternatives suggested in the Fehr & Peers study; four people wrote comments in support of one of the bypass alternatives suggested by the 2018 Fehr & Peers study.

Several residents of the Mountain View neighborhood, which the proposed bypass routes would border, called in to the Zoom meeting to express their dismay that local leaders would revive the idea.

Councilmember Karen Guzman-Newton said she could conceive of supporting a bypass other than one of the alternatives suggested by the Fehr & Peers study.

“Congestion is real,” she said. “Is the widening project going to have the benefits that UDOT originally was hoping for? Our fingers are crossed—I highly doubt that will be the case. And would I love for us to own our Main Street? Heck yes.”

However, she said any bypass proposal would have to move traffic further south of town and be certain not to affect neighborhoods in order to win her support.

Councilmember Mike Duncan scoffed at the possibility of constructing a cost-effective bypass that will not impact neighborhoods.

“It’s sure as hell not going to happen in my lifetime, and probably not in any of yours,” he told meeting participants, saying he would not support a bypass unless it could be funded by the state and harmless to neighborhoods, a scenario he does not expect to arise.

Commissioner Jaylyn Hawks said that while she found the two alternatives from the Fehr & Peers study “ridiculous,” she preferred to keep the option of a bypass on the table in case a more appealing alternative is introduced.

“I would not support the bypasses as presented, but this is a very long process with many, many hoops,” she said. “I just would like to keep our options open for the distant future.”

Regional transportation planning

An Oct. 30 press release from UDOT invites Moab area stakeholders to complete a survey to give input on their transportation priorities and needs. Survey results will inform a regional long-term plan crafted with input from Grand and San Juan counties, Moab City, and the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration in addition to UDOT.

“The goal is to provide a holistic, long-term transportation vision for the region and serve as a guiding document for improvements to local, regional, and state roads and multimodal transportation,” said UDOT Region Four Planning Manager Jeff Sanders, who represents UDOT in this endeavor, in the press release.

The planning effort will also be informed by various existing studies and plans produced by regional stakeholders since 2004, including the Fehr & Peers bypass study. The survey and those documents can be found at moabspanishvalleyrtp.org.

“It’s very highly collaborative,” said Kevin Kitchen, communications manager for UDOT’s region four, of the process. “The partnership is really pretty balanced.”

Kitchen said that UDOT’s central planning division saw value in launching this planning effort as a flurry of transportation-related projects are under discussion or underway in Moab—projects like the widening of Highway 191 and the Arches Hotspot proposals. Increasing tourism and congestion are also prompting the collaboration.

Sanders said the planning team has stayed aware of the Hotspot Committee’s discussions.

“They initially had proposed a lot of good ideas, and they’ve narrowed it down to just three,” Sanders said, noting that some of the projects that didn’t make it into the Hotspot package could be included in the regional plan.

“There’s still some good ideas that have some merits and should be part of a long-term transportation plan.”

The group’s public input survey does include a question about a bypass.

“Part of the purpose of the long range plan is to try to get a feel for what kind of support there is for a bypass,” Sanders said.

He doesn’t expect the plan will offer a firm recommendation in support of or against a bypass; rather, he said, the plan will suggest the best course of action in either scenario.

“It’s sure as hell not going to happen in my lifetime, and probably not in any of yours.”

– Mike Duncan