A St. George-to-Zion shuttle could be key to unlocking So. Utah public transportation

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

What if you could fly into St. George Regional Airport and get on a public shuttle bus that could take you straight to Zion National Park, along the way stopping at key gateway communities and rural treasures?

Well, plans are already underway for just that.

Washington and Kane counties are currently pushing ahead with projects putting electric vehicles between St. George, Springdale and Kanab, in order to encourage more efficient and eco-friendly tourism, as well as to bring public transportation to remote areas, boosting local economies and overall equity.

It’s all kinds of complicated, with many jurisdictions and agencies pitching in to make it all happen.

But in the end, lawmakers and activists are hoping this regional shuttle system can connect secluded southern Utah on an unprecedented level, and are this can be the blueprint to expand the system further to Las Vegas and the other four Utah National Parks.

A rough map of the potential regional shuttle systems being planned.

St. George to Springdale

The first leg starts in St. George, the hub of southern Utah, to Springdale, the gateway community of Zion National Park.

Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox and St. George City Mayor Jon Pike, along with other governments in the county, have been working closely together with Zion and Springdale to begin running electric shuttles within the next few years.

In 2018, the governments received $15 million of Recreation Hotspot funding from the Utah Legislature to implement a shuttle from St. George to Springdale.

That, plus $3 million from the Federal Highway Administration, comes with a catch — the governments must operate the buses for 10 years, should they take the money.

“The reason UDOT awarded this money for SR-9 is because they’ve been spending so much money on repairs because of cars,” Cox said. “Everybody’s laying the groundwork for this next century experience… we’re getting closer and closer to seeing it come to realization. “

A presentation made by AECOM to the Council of Governments shows they are planning to have four operating electric buses plus a spare to run the distance between St. George and Zion, with 10-minute layovers, 19 total stops, an express service, and more service during peak recreational season.

From end-to-end, round trip, the shuttle would take you 180 minutes on the local service and 150 minutes on the express. For context, it typically takes about 50 minutes, depending on traffic, to drive to Zion from St. George.

AECOM included plans for commuters as well as park visitors. They assume 25% of Zion’s south entrance visitors will come from St. George, estimating somewhere between 60,000 and 110,000 riders will use the shuttle annually.

Buses can charge at the depot overnight and have a quick charge during the layover at Zion.

Mayor Pike and AECOM flagged SunTran, St. George’s local public bus system, as a good example of the type of service they hope to provide and are heavily considering using SunTran to run the St. George to Springdale line anyway.

Using other examples of systems like this around the country, a potential one-way base fare would be around $8 per person, or $0.18 per mile.

For comparison, the same ride on the commercial popular shuttle line St. George Shuttle would cost about $70 one way.

Shuttles carried festivalgoers to their cars during Swiss Days in Santa Clara on Sept. 22, 2018.

The Zions Public Finance feasibility study ran four scenarios, which included some fare reductions and increases, and found the best use of funding would be to use electric buses operated by SunTran.

These studies show a 15-year model instead of 10, which is helpful for worried officials trying to make sure they can sustain this shuttle for a decade.

In a final effort to help make a decision on the project, the Five County Association of Governments conducted a feasibility study in December 2016 and found southern Utah not only wants a public transportation system but needs it.

They found a large number of people without cars live in and around St. George, and many under the poverty line live in Washington City and areas south of Rockville and Springdale. Many people with disabilities live in Hurricane and St. George.

They also found many major employers are along the proposed route, as well as essential services like hospitals.

This shuttle would stop in St. George, Washington, Hurricane, La Verkin and of course, Springdale. Connecting these rural hubs means access for underprivileged and privileged groups alike.

Surveyed people for the Five County's 2016 feasibility study showed many users would like the shuttle service to go to work or Zion National Park.

According to the Five County’s Study and survey, they found most people would be taking the shuttle to work or to Zion, confirming what lawmakers and advocates have seen for years.

Mayor Pike said that while this project is about tourism, it’s also about citizens.

“The idea, of course, is to make it more affordable for people, have fewer cars on the road, lessen need to widen roads and make it better for air quality,” he said. “For people, it could really be a benefit to them and their families to have a lower expense to get to work.”

While people have and can take commercial shuttles, they often cost so much the average commuter cannot afford them. Pike says this public transportation system is needed because “we can do it for less because we don’t have to make a profit.”

Washington County adopted a quarter-percent sales tax increase last year in an effort to fund transportation solutions. Of that, 0.05% will is for the county, 0.10% is for mass transit, including this shuttle project, and 0.10% is available for cities to solve the road and transportation issues they’re grappling with.

All in all, the Council of Governments is left with the decision of what to do next. They next meet on August 20.

Springdale to Kanab

Funding for these new shuttle systems amasses to millions.

On the east end of the park, another project is coming to fruition in order to solve the public transportation problem.

Advocacy organization Utah Clean Cities, in partnership with Kane County, is well underway with its mission of placing electric shuttles between Springdale and Kanab to increase visitation to Zion’s east end and decrease bottleneck traffic in the historic Mt. Carmel tunnel.

Mt. Carmel tunnel is notorious for long lines and mandating escorts for large vehicles, due to the size of the tunnel built in the 1920s. In 2019 alone, there were 33,000 vehicle escorts through the tunnel. This project hopes to clear a lot of the traffic by bringing visitors onto their shuttles, instead of sitting in their RVs and cars, waiting to get by.

“This is an opportunity to disperse visitors to the eastern side of the park,” Executive Director of Utah Clean Cities Tammie Bostick said. “How do you get people to slow down and go wow this is magnificent? I really want people to slow down and spend time here.”

Utah Clean Cities has received $780,000 from the Department of Energy for this project, which they say is matched with funds locally and in-kind.

The goal of the “East Zion National Park Electric Vehicle Shuttle System Project” or “EV Zion” is to demonstrate a small-scale, environmentally-sound shuttle system that is a blueprint planned to scale.

Roughed out long tunnel during supplemental construction- Zion Mt Carmel Highway.

They want to make the experience on shuttles more enjoyable than just getting from point A to point B, with plans for theater seating and sky roofs.

“Doesn’t the urban dweller get enough traffic congestion, tailpipe fumes, and impatient drivers in their usual routine?” Bostick said, describing these plans.

The project is currently underway testing the electric shuttles and studying the potential effects on the area. They expect to have electric shuttles on the east end roads within the next few years.

“The terrain and four extreme seasons of the Zion area are really one of the best testing grounds for this advanced technology.  This pilot will be able to demonstrate the battery electric vehicle can do even better than fossil fuels with high torque and regenerative braking,” Bostick said. “More importantly, it allows our parks to model leadership on the national park level, preserving our national treasures leading the way for our nation to solutions that create resiliency and sustainability.”

What about the other national parks?

Track laid between Salt Lake City and Moab is ripe for passenger trains.

With plans to connect St. George, Springdale and Kanab all underway, what about the rest of southern Utah?

Mark Preiss, Director of the Zion Forever Project, said they are excited about the strides being taken now and are looking forward to the possibility down the line of expanding the shuttle system.

“This is nothing but positive,” he said. “A new electric shuttle system and the exemplary level of partner commitment across jurisdictions can serve as a regional transit model for other parks across the country.”

Local leaders, such as Kane County Commissioner Brent Chamberlain, think this is a ripe opportunity, where southern Utah could be ” the only place in the country where someone could fly into the airport, hop on a shuttle go to three national parks.”

Checkerboard Mesa and the section of the East Rim Trail that leads back to the trailhead near the East Entrance to Zion National Park stretch out into the distance in the view from the top of the East Rim Trail April 29.

Utah Department of Transportation Regional Transportation Planner Jeff Sanders said they would definitely and support and encourage that type of mobility if it’s done right.

“There are big questions to answer when you establish the transit system like this, like who’s going to be governing and paying for the routes and costs in the future,” Sanders said. “Every problem is feasible it’s just how much time and money it would take to solve the problems.”

Kevin Lewis, Director of Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office, thinks in order to get people into the greater Zion area and decrease crowding, governments have to be proactive.

“At some point, we can’t draw lines in the sand and say that’s someone else’s jurisdiction, we need to create a visitor experience that’s really unique,” he said. “We have to be proactive in adapting to the circumstances that visitors are coming, we need to give them the best experience as we can, and keep it nice for the locals.”

He said UDOT is trying to consider more ways to connect places in Utah with airports to increase tourism and travel.

Another avenue UDOT and advocates are looking into is the already laid track from Salt Lake City to Moab that has the potential to become passenger rail. This would mean National Parks like Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef would be more easily accessed by tourists and locals alike.

A study done in May of this year showing there needs to be more local transportation upkeep in Moab and more research must be done, but it is a solution that is on UDOT’s minds.

The Salt Lake City to Moab and St. George to Zion transportation systems were discussed around the release of UDOT’s 2019 Statewide Rural Long-Range Transportation Plan, which shows what are UDOT’s priorities for increasing mobility in rural areas.

Kevin Lewis thinks a larger regional transportation system would be seamless for tourists and alleviate some stress off of hotspots for parking and car control.

“I think it’s pretty visionary, to be honest. We have a lot of international travelers — or we did,” he said, alluding to 2020’s dropoff in international travel because of COVID-19. As that type of travel resumes, the shuttle would make a lot of sense.

“I think that would be something like this would be really natural to them, where they can get out of the airport and get into the greater Zion,” he said.

While the plans are moving ahead slowly, but surely, there is hope southern Utah will become more cohesive as it grows with locals and tourists.

Vicki Varela, Managing Director of the Utah Office of Tourism, says this regional transportation system really shows how we can work together to try and create a new solution to an old problem.

“This is the most inspiring national parks project in the country right now,” she said. “This is a rare opportunity where the public and private sectors are coming together with this huge swath of land. In the heart of it is the Zion shuttle system, which between the aging shuttles and COVID-19 is at a crisis point.

“This is super important to resolve in a thoughtful way which will make a difference in establishing a sustainable tourism economy,” she added.

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.