Is the lack of a public transportation system in southern Utah hurting citizens and tourism?

Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a three-part series about regional transportation in southern Utah for citizens and tourists alike. 

It’s no secret that living in southern Utah is expensive.

But what do you do when you can’t afford to live near your workplace, and there’s no public transportation to help you get there?

The lack of public transportation in southern Utah not only impedes equity among citizens, policymakers say, but also harms the vital and thriving tourism industry local towns depend on.

Especially for the elderly, people who are disabled and those with low income, not having reliable transportation in rural Utah means poverty, a lack of socialization and the increased likelihood of unemployment.

Citizens of Springdale, the remote gateway town into the popular Zion National Park, now face two problems.

For one, tourists cause traffic congestion for miles just trying to get into the park, the noise and gas emissions of which are a cause for concern and uproar. Public places are crowded, and just finding a parking spot can sometimes be an adventure.

Cars stretch into neighboring Springdale and beyond outside of Zion National Park.

And second, Springdale has to grapple with its remoteness, with jobs for hire with no applicants, high housing costs and few options for essentials, forcing most to travel down the sometimes precarious SR-9 for the things they need like doctors, mechanics and groceries.

Springdale Mayor Stan Smith says the best solution to all of this would be a public transportation system, but he needs intercounty and state support to fund that kind of enterprise.

“I’m pushing so hard for that transit system, if it was up to me it should have been in a year and a half ago,” he said.

Traffic and tourism is tough

6,600 cars drive on SR-9 near Zion National Park per day on average.

What do you get when you have a small canyon, one road and the third-most-popular national park in the country all in one town? Traffic.

The Utah Department of Transportation estimates that on average, 6,600 vehicles drive on SR-9 near the park per day.

The park saw 4.5 million visitors in 2019, and the shuttle system moves around 6.6 million people annually, including those coming in and out of Springdale.

On any given day during peak season, the line of cars from Zion’s gates trails into the town, leaving dozens of cars idling constantly on the road, blocking businesses and essential services.

UDOT is very aware of the traffic situation in Springdale, and officials said they support ideas for more ways to move people safely and efficiently.

“The road ends at Springdale. If you’ve ever tried to get in the national parks on a busy day, there’s always idling vehicles. It’s a pretty unpleasant experience for the residents of Springdale,” Jeff Sanders, UDOT Regional Transportation Planner said.

Mayor Smith said there is understandably “talk about how bad it is” and citizens “absolutely don’t like it.”

A view of Zion National Park from next to Springdale Town Hall and Zion Canyon Mesa.

But, he says he constantly reminds citizens that tourism is what keeps their town afloat.

“We will collect in property taxes somewhere in the neighborhood of $72,000 a year. My budget for this next year is about $6.5 million. The majority of that money is coming from sales tax, transit tax, resort tax,” Smith said. “People might not like to see these tourists, but that’s what’s keeping their property tax down.”

He attributes a lot of the tourism to the shuttles, saying, “they are very much needed, we couldn’t have the visitation that we have without the shuttles.”

And you can’t talk about traffic without talking about parking.

Parking in Zion National Park, especially the visitor center, fills up early nearly every day, forcing visitors to find parking in Springdale.

The problem is there are too many visitors and not enough parking. People can drive into Springdale and then use the shuttle, decreasing cars on the road, but where are they going to put the car they used to get to the area?

People park on the side of the road, on top of vegetation which is bad for the wildlife and could potentially start a wildfire. Parking lots to essential businesses fill up and visitors have even parked in driveways and in front of homes.

Residents say they are frustrated but know the tourism is a necessary evil.

Kevin McLaws, resident and owner of Zion Mountain Ranch on the east side of the park, said the driving terrain can be intimidating for visitors and he sees the many problems that naturally come with being a gateway community. Mostly, he just wants a public transportation solution, like yesterday.

“But that’s the question I bring up, is why is this taking so long? Let’s do it,” he said.

Work is dependent on transportation

There are 529 citizens of Springdale town, according to the 2010 census. But there were 4.5 million visitors to Zion National Park in 2019.

Springdale is like many other gateway communities to National Parks which suffer from and are dependent on tourism to pay for everything from governmental services to putting money in the pockets of employees.

Smith, who is also a business owner in Springdale, also said there are a lot of jobs in the town and “a lot of times” they can’t fill jobs because there are not enough people to apply.

“I know there are people in Hurricane and La Verkin who would like to come up and work but they don’t have reliable transportation,” he said.

Sanders at UDOT says more public transportation would bring equity to those who suffer from the heavily car-reliant area and its costs.

“Public transportation enables people that are unable to leave the house and can’t afford a car to come back into society,” he said.  “One of the biggest opportunities, when you consider a lot of the employees in Springdale and in the future on the east side, there is an opportunity to provide cheap, reliable transportation for those employees.”

And while Springdale is not as remote as it used to be and there are a few small shops that provide necessities, Smith said, there’s still many who depend on others to drive them down out of the canyon for hospital trips, grocery shopping and other basic services.

State tourism officials managers are involved in trying to figure out the best solutions to gateway town’s problems when it comes to overtourism.

“We feel like it’s about managing the visitor experience and managing the community experience. There are definitely parts of the state where they don’t want more tourists and we don’t want to force tourists on them if that’s not their community goal,” Vicki Varela, Managing Director of the Utah Office of Tourism said.

Other parks, communities struggle with transportation too

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Capitol Reef National Park, a long and narrow park just west of Canyonlands, does not have a shuttle at all. And that’s just fine for them. Mostly.

There’s a road that runs through it that many truckers and drivers alike use to get from one place to another. But for those who stop and look around awhile, over 1.2 million in 2019, the parking situation can be rough.

Superintendent Susan Fritzke said none of the parking areas are designed to handle the capacity and size of modern cars and recreational vehicles, as they were built in the 1960s.

While park officials are looking at the potential of increasing parking lot size, they’re also dealing with people parking on the shoulder which, as aforementioned, is dangerous to the wildlife and could potentially start a wildfire.

But Fritzke says Capitol Reef, like other parks and gateway towns, are constantly trying to figure out solutions to their transportation issues.

“Parks are located in places where there are interesting things that need to be protected, I can’t pick up this park and move it when I need to,” she said. “Every park is different and every park comes up with solutions that fit them.”

Passengers board Bryce Canyon National Park Shuttles, which were replaced in 2016.

Bryce Canyon National Park, like Zion, started their own shuttle system in 2000. But, unlike Zion, they were able to replace the degrading shuttles in 2016.

Their new shuttles served over 2.5 million people in 2019. Their solution is inspiring but frustrating for those pushing for Zion to get new shuttles, but also for those pushing for more regional public transportation.

Recently, lawmakers and advocates have been pushing to move ahead on projects that will solve many of Springdale’s transportation issues as well as connecting much of Utah, including potentially connecting all five National Parks.

Now the questions are only, how and when?

K. Sophie Will is the National Parks Reporter for The Spectrum & Daily News through the Report for America initiative by The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter at @ksophiewill or email her at kswill@thespectrum.com.