After the COVID-19 pandemic stunted the spring travel rush, summer brought renewed tourism, and fall saw record attendees at Arches and Canyonlands national parks. Locals and visitors alike have dealt with the ups and downs of the last year in Moab.

Construction on Highway 191 (Main Street throughout downtown Moab) began last March, and as thousands of domestic tourists flooded Moab’s main road, locals have been looking forward to seeing the work completed. Visitors who haven’t driven in have often taken a direct flight from Denver, Colo. to Moab through the Canyonlands Regional Airport.

As another busy spring and summer approach, what can Moab’s tourists and residents expect as far as transportation?

Airport updates

SkyWest Airlines will begin offering daily service to Salt Lake City from Canyonlands Regional Airport — formerly Canyonlands Field Airport — beginning on May 5. Tickets between the two destinations are already available on the Delta Airlines website.

SkyWest has offered daily flights to Denver from Moab since 2018 under the United Airlines brand through an Essential Air Service Agreement with the Department of Transportation. Essential Air Service agreements began after airlines were deregulated in 1978. Deregulation meant that airlines could freely choose what markets to serve and what fare to charge; the Essential Air Service program was created to prevent rural communities from totally losing their small airport services. According to the Department of Transportation, about 175 communities in the U.S. get subsidized services from commuter air carriers through the program.

UDOT recently approved modifications to the agreement, allowing the airline subsidy to offer a dual-brand, dual-market air service agreement from the Moab airport. SkyWest’s newly scheduled flights from Moab to Salt Lake City will operate through an agreement with Delta Airlines.

“Whether heading to Salt Lake City or beyond, these new flights provide travelers greater access and options for all their travel plans,” Greg Atkin, SkyWest’s managing director of Market Development, said in a Monday press release. “Passengers can also fly with confidence thanks to the multiple safety measures that are in place, including enhanced cleaning, mandatory face coverings and customer self-assessments with check-in.”

Travelers will now have two options for direct or one-stop flights to Moab via United and Delta Airlines through their hubs in Denver and Salt Lake City, respectively.

In 2016, Moab’s then-carrier Boutique Air offered three flights per day — two to Salt Lake City and one to Denver. Service to Salt Lake ended when the service was awarded to SkyWest in 2018. SkyWest won the contract after the Grand County Airport Board and Grand County Council voted unanimously to select them for their proposal to use larger planes for service between Moab and Denver.

However, many Moab residents were frustrated by the decision to switch from Boutique to SkyWest. Some Moab citizens at the time preferred to keep Boutique’s smaller planes if they meant continuous service to both Salt Lake City and Denver, thinking that the decision to choose SkyWest may have ignored locals’ concerns in favor of placating businesses. But the new flights beginning in May will once again enable Moab residents to fly to both cities.

“Southeastern Utah is pleased for the return of Salt Lake City service,” said Airport Director Andy Solsvig. “This route should be popular in supporting economic development, business, governmental ties to the state capital, tourism and other leisure travel.”

Flights to Salt Lake City will use 50-passenger CRJ200 regional aircraft and will be timed to maximize connection opportunities for travelers; Delta offers 250 daily flights to 85 destinations out of Salt Lake City.

“I know the community has been wanting Salt Lake City for some time. The timing was right on making this happen and we’re really excited about it,” Solsvig said to the Grand County Commission at their regular meeting on March 2. “Now we can go east or west to pretty much anywhere else.”

Highway 191 progress

The Highway 191 construction that began in March of 2020 is expected to wrap up before Easter weekend on April 3 and 4.

“We’re all preparing for a spring that’s going to be exceptionally busy,” said City Manager Joel Linares. “People are not allowed to travel internationally right now, so they’re going to travel locally. We’re a great destination for that.”

After years of discussion, UDOT awarded Kilgore Contracting with the contract for the widening of U.S. Highway 191 from 400 North to State Route 128 in February of 2020, responding to businesses’ and residents’ concerns that the previous highway created a bottleneck to and from downtown. The section of highway has since been widened from two lanes to four, with a center turn lane for most of the way and six-foot shoulders.

The project combined a storm drainage improvement project with the highway widening to add curb, gutter and sidewalk for a long stretch of the new pavement. Businesses were also frustrated that the widening project began this time last year at the start of the anticipated tourism season, but the timing seemed fortuitous when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March.

“This will all be worth it when there are four lanes all the way into Moab,” said Elaine Gizler, director of the Moab Travel Council. “It’s exciting that they’ve made so much progress and now we’re just looking forward to the completion, which looks like it’s within our sights. The pain is going to be worth the gain.”