City of Moab building
Moab City Hall

The Moab City Council met for their regular meeting on Tuesday, where discussion about Moab City’s stance on a Highway 191 bypass dominated the conversation.

The council voted on a resolution sponsored by Councilmember Kalen Jones, which stated the City of Moab’s position on such a bypass: “The continuing idea of a bypass — and the contention around it — also distracts from the hard work of finding real solutions to Moab’s challenges.”

The resolution passed 4-1, with Karen Guzman-Newton dissenting.

The council also reopened discussion about an interlocal agreement between the City of Moab and Grand County, which narrowly failed at the council’s last meeting due to concerns about the bypass. The agreement was approved unanimously on Tuesday.

A Highway 191 bypass has been under discussion in Moab for decades as a solution to mitigate traffic, congestion and noise downtown. The Utah Department of Transportation conducted a study in 2004 which considered building bridges across the Colorado River — one near Lions Park and another between Highway 279 and Kane Creek Boulevard — but no action was taken.

In 2018, the state offered funding for recreational communities, locally known as Arches Hotspot Funding, “to study and implement congestion mitigation.” UDOT consultants Fehr & Peers conducted a 2018 study on other bypass options, which concluded that two options, named 1A and 1D, were the most feasible plans. However, both of these options would have a significant impact on western Moab neighborhoods — particularly the Mountain View neighborhood. Residents expressed fervent opposition to these alternatives. The Moab City and Grand County government bodies have also voiced “no interest in a bypass route that will negatively impact any Moab neighborhoods.”

Most recently, UDOT, Moab, Grand County, San Juan County and SITLA have begun funding a Southeastern Utah Regional Transport Plan to organize future transportation projects in the area, led by UDOT and Fehr & Peers. This plan is nearing its final form, and drafts have included the bypass as a potential future project despite elected officials’ opinions that the plans presented in 2018 — 1A and 1D — were unacceptable.

UDOT and its consultants recommended leaving the bypass in the draft and noted that the bypass could be added anytime. The latest draft of the Regional Transport Plan states: “The recommendation of this plan is to include the notion of a bypass in this plan without a specific alignment or timeframe. This makes no commitment for any agency to take action on it but leaves the decision to take a more comprehensive analysis open as an option that UDOT leadership and/or local elected bodies can initiate.”

Jones’ resolution approved on Tuesday argued that the only options for a proposed bypass would be 1A and 1D, which have already been rendered unviable by many elected officials due to these alignments’ negative effects on Moab neighborhoods. Other options, such as a tunnel beneath Main Street or through Behind the Rocks, Jones argued, are “simply not financially viable at this time.” Jones left room for alternatives that would not affect neighborhoods to be discussed and researched in the future.

“While we recognize that traffic and congestion do have real impacts along Main Street, relocating some of those impacts to populated, residential areas of the community is not acceptable,” the resolution reads. The resolution “identifies the idea of directing the City Council and City staff’s focus on redevelopment options for downtown Moab, instead of focusing on the bypass.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, residents of Moab’s Mountain View neighborhood to the west expressed their support of Kalen Jones’ resolution.

Liz Ballenger said that though most everyone would like to see large trucks off of Main Street, constructing a bypass that would jeopardize neighborhoods and recreational sites was not worth it.

“Everybody loves the magical bypass idea that could tunnel under Main Street or behind the west rim. But let’s be realistic here: even when these ideas were brought up repeatedly to UDOT and their contractors, they never seriously considered them,” Ballenger continued.

“UDOT has built highways in front of people’s homes on the Wasatch Front, in Price and many other places across the state. Do we really think that they’d support a super expensive, magical bypass in little old Moab?”

Constance Richford of Mountain View referenced the concept of “induced demand,” a phenomenon observed in Los Angeles, Calif. and other major traffic hubs in America.

“When you build bigger and better roads, people drive more. You can’t build your way out of traffic,” she said. “We don’t have to be the guinea pigs for this sort of thing in Moab — we can learn from other places’ successes and mistakes.”

Richford went on to cite health problems from living near commercial highways, such as increased cancer and asthma rates.

“The question is not whether the bypass will eliminate the question; the evidence shows that it will not,” Richford concluded. “It’s more that we are willing to sacrifice the health and happiness and financial stability of more than a hundred or so Moab families, including me, for such tiny, little gains.”

Neal Clark, another Mountain View resident, was appointed by the county as a biking representative to the Regional Transport Planning stakeholder group. He spoke about his disappointment with proposed bypass options.

“The council now has an opportunity to tell the community and UDOT that it supports the health and welfare of its residents, and that’s by making it clear that it does not support the bypass alternatives that will go through the Mountain View neighborhood,” Clark said. “Put the two Mountain View alternatives to rest, ideally, for good.”

Finally, local businessman Michael Liss, long active and outspoken on transportation issues, spoke against the resolution and argued that taking the bypass off the table was “ludicrous.” He pointed out that travelers and truckers from the northwest traveling southwest will have to go through Moab.

“If you take traffic off Main Street, you will help the health and wellbeing of the entire community,” Liss said. “You need to save the heart of the town, the soul of the town, so people can walk and talk again.” [See Liss’s letter to the editor in this edition. -ed.]

Many councilmembers, such as Mike Duncan, voiced concern that UDOT would hold the reins on initiating a bypass, even if local bodies did not support it. Jones and Mayor Emily Niehaus emphasized that leaving the bypass as an option would “siphon creative energy and resources,” as Jones put it.

“I and everyone would like a pleasant, vibrant and activated downtown, and I think the city can and should play an important role in facilitating that off Main,” Jones continued. He said that the resolution does not presume to totally eliminate the possibility of a bypass, but that the city wants to “send a clear message that the bypass agenda push for the last three years isn’t acceptable…that we want to pursue real solutions soon.”

“I want to be clear that we’re not broken. We’ve got some noise issues to mitigate, we’ve got some traffic congestion to mitigate, we’ve got some quality of life issues that we are working on as a council,” the mayor said. “But Moab is a beautiful place to live and work and visit, and we’re getting organized — this [resolution] is part of that organization and forward-thinking.”

Councilmember Karen Guzman-Newton, who was ultimately the lone nay against the resolution, expressed worry that the city would be excluded from bypass discussions in future decades if the idea was taken off the table now.

“I don’t think it is forward-thinking by taking this off the books. There is a good possibility that we might not be able to say yay or nay to a bypass,” she said. “I am disappointed that there is the feeling that we need to eradicate this because this discussion has been happening for over 30 years.”

The resolution passed 4-1.

Directly following discussion on the bypass resolution, the council voted to approve an interlocal agreement by and between Moab and Grand County for planning and funding of the technical planning assistance program funds cooperative agreement. The interlocal agreement had been voted down at the last council meeting, but councilmembers said that City Engineer Chuck Williams resolved their concerns.

“Thanks for the opportunity to do some on the ground, local planning,” Guzman-Newton said. “It’s been a huge agenda item for all of us as a council and we haven’t had the funds; this is a really great opportunity to try to get that in place and help staff to fulfill our goals.”

The interlocal agreement was then approved unanimously.

“I encourage us to continue to get organized around quality of life and make things better for us as residents,” the mayor concluded. “The better it is for us, the better we can be of service to visitors to our community.”