Before the global coronavirus pandemic took center stage, a proposed parking structure in downtown Moab was the hot local topic.

$10 million was awarded to the Arches National Park/Moab area by the Utah Transportation Commission via a one-time “Recreation Hotspot” disbursal. However, business owners, community members and some elected officials raised strong opposition to the parking structure concept even after the project was approved and the design process begun.

After much discussion, the City of Moab decided to shelve the parking structure idea and go back to the drawing board with a new “Arches Hotspot Region Coordinating Committee.”

One complaint voiced by local businesses about the first committee was that it was not transparent enough. However, coronavirus social distancing measures and public preoccupation with the pandemic have proved to be additional obstacles to public involvement.

New hotspot funding committee

“Here’s this very project where there’s a complaint that we weren’t transparent enough, and so here we are making an extra effort, and because of the extra hoops residents have to jump through in order to make their voice be heard, it’s not happening very well,” said hotspot committee member Mike Duncan, who is also a City Council member.

The reformed Hotspot Committee group held its third official meeting on May 13 with Grand County Councilmember Curtis Wells as chair; he is joined by county council members Jaylyn Hawks and Evan Clapper. Karen Guzman-Newton, Kalen Jones and Mike Duncan represent the Moab City Council while Wes Shannon completes the committee as a business representative. Shannon is co-owner of downtown restaurants Love Muffin and La Sal House and president of the recently-formed Downtown Main Street Alliance, an organization of local businesses located on or near Moab’s main thoroughfare. City and county staff as well as UDOT representatives have also been participating in the discussions.

The City of Moab website is host to a page dedicated to keeping the public informed of the committee’s progress. That page also has a link for citizens to submit comments. The committee’s meetings are held electronically and streamed on YouTube.

Even with these opportunities, committee members and staff said they have not seen anything close to the normal volume of comments from citizens on the process.

City Communications Manager Lisa Church, who attended the meeting, said city staff are considering creating a survey for the public and will be promoting the Hotspot Committee activities on social media.

Guzman-Newton suggested the possibility of holding an outdoor, socially distant town-hall style meeting where citizens could ask questions and make comments in person. No such event is scheduled as of yet.

There are three general objectives that a project must meet in order to be eligible for funding from the state: it must reduce traffic congestion, support economic development, and increase recreation and tourism opportunities. At the May 13 meeting, UDOT Deputy Director for the region Monte Aldridge said that his department was most concerned with reducing congestion.

“Reduced congestion is the primary purpose of the funding,” Aldridge said, “so I believe that ought to be the driving force behind any of the projects that we recommend to the commission.”

Public transit off the table

The Hotspot Committee is creating a list of possible projects, evaluating whether they fit the criteria outlined by the Utah Transportation Commission to receive hotspot funding.

The concept of developing a public transit system, which was a popular suggestion among some opponents of the parking garage, has been determined to be too expensive to operate and too complex to be fleshed out by September, when the region must submit their alternative project proposal to UDOT. Another local body, the Regional Transportation Plan Stakeholders Group, is discussing the future of transportation in the valley, and planning for a public transit system could be part of those talks. Committee members agreed that consideration of a future transit system should inform the Hotspot project.

Likewise, the long-discussed downtown bypass to remove truck traffic from Main Street was determined to be far outside the scope of a Hotspot project.

The committee has narrowed the list down to four possibilities: Main Street improvements, dispersed parking solutions, creating a shared-use path, and a “South Recreation” parking lot.

Option #1: Downtown improvements

Shannon urged the committee to prioritize the downtown area as a way of supporting Moab businesses during tough times.

“The future could not be more dire,” Shannon said of the current economic outlook.

“The thriving downtown business community is now at a standstill. Some will not make it out of this, and the ones who do will need as much support as we can give them,” urged Shannon, who said it could be “a huge morale booster for businesses getting back on their feet to provide a new downtown experience for tourists and our residents.”

“There’s definitely room for improvement,” said Shannon, speaking on behalf of the Downtown Main Street Alliance. The Alliance was formed in opposition to the parking structure previously chosen to receive hotspot funding.

Before the meeting, Shannon reported that he walked around the downtown area and spoke with business owners along with committee members Guzman-Newton and Clapper. They discussed the need for more consistency in no-parking striping, sidewalk width and curb height; adding more attractive landscaping, medians, shade trees; and eliminating some left turns on Main Street to improve traffic flow.

“It’s almost like everything was designed there block by block, corner by corner, and there was never an overall picture that came up,” Clapper said of infrastructure inconsistencies downtown. “If we’re going to tweak this, let’s re-do the plan for all of it.”

Option #2: Off-Main parking

Committee members said that the need for convenient parking and pedestrian safety on Main Street are major concerns. Under the category of “dispersed parking,” the group is considering adjustments to side streets off of downtown Main Street that could increase and improve parking options for both visitors and tourists.

Shannon included off-Main parking in his vision of downtown improvements.

“If we don’t improve parking on side streets, it will most certainly continue to be a dysfunctional experience for everyone,” he said.

Many committee members support this project as a worthy recipient of the funding, but Duncan cautioned that including adding parking downtown to the project could end up following what he called the “bigger backpack theory:”

“At some point in your life you’ve gone out and bought a bigger pack because you ran out of room, and somehow you found a way to fill it up,” Duncan said. “I kind of think of downtown as that way.” Duncan said that he believes increased parking will not successfully reduce congestion, but only increase the number of cars in the downtown area.

City Engineer Chuck Williams gave a presentation of some brief sketches his staff had put together to give the committee an idea of what might be feasible to increase and improve off-Main Street parking, showing complications that include driveways, delivery truck access and crosswalks.

A block-by-block consideration of potential parking plans is planned for a future meeting.

Option #3: Creating a multi-use path

A third option considered for the funding is a multi-use path connecting Spanish Valley to Downtown Moab. The paved walking and biking trail would be separated from the highway for safety.

The project is popular with committee members and some members of the public. However, the project may not meet the crucial criteria of reducing congestion necessary to secure the funding.

Mike Duncan voiced doubts based on his past residence in Boulder, Colorado.

“Boulder has a beautiful bike trail system, heavily used, but does it do anything for traffic?” Duncan said. “Not really. The streets are choked.”

Aldridge agreed that UDOT officials might not see a multi-use pathway as a significant congestion reliever.

“Will there be enough of a congestion relief component to a shared use path? Some of our active transportation folks would chime in and say ‘yes.’ Others, traffic engineers, would probably chime in and say ‘no,’” Aldridge warned.

Shannon said the businesses he represents have strong expectations that the funding will be used to improve the downtown area.

Option #4: South Recreation parking

The South Recreation parking project would provide a lot where visitors could leave their oversized vehicles for the day. The county and the school district both own properties on the south end of town that could be considered candidates for building the lot.

Without an operational public transit system connecting the lot to the downtown area, doubts were raised about the utility of the project.

“Without any transit at all, it weakens the whole thing,” Duncan said.

Clapper suggested that if the idea of a South Recreation lot were combined with the multi-use pathway, that could be a viable way to make both more functional.

The committee must make a decision and recommend one project for the Hotspot funding to both the Moab City and Grand County councils by September 1. If approved by those bodies, it will be presented to UDOT for consideration.

The next meeting of the Arches Hotspot Region Coordinating Committee is scheduled for 2 p.m. on May 27. Meetings can be viewed live on the City of Moab YouTube channel. For more information or to make a comment, go to www.moabcity.org/558/UDOT-Hotspot-Funding-for-Moab-Area