ST. GEORGE — While the idea of a St. George-to-Springdale bus route has been kicked around for years, it appears that the concept is on the final stretch of hitting the ground running in the near future.
The unfolding plan was addressed during a May 20 Washington County Council of Governments meeting with representation by St. George Mayor Jon Pike.
Currently, the Zions Bank Public Finance group and the city’s consultant, Los Angeles-based AECOM, are conducting an analysis of transit route, including detailed costs, and the report is tentatively scheduled to be completed within the week.
“The bottom line is, they have a model that looks better than we thought it (initially) would be. I am encouraged,” Pike said. “It’s a 15-year run instead of 10, and it looks like it will not have to dip into the sales tax for transportation (because of a) smaller system.”
Although there is positive movement, Pike added that there are still unknowns. One major question is whether SunTran, St. George’s public transit system, will operate the route or if it would be another service provider.
“If SunTran runs it, they think they can do it better,” Pike said. “We have to ask ourselves as a city if we can do that. That’s going to be the kicker.”
Based on preliminary data, SunTran could be able to provide the service cheaper, but the city may still choose to issue a request for proposal bid allowing other companies to compete to operate the bus route.
The other question is whether the decision to use 40-passenger electric buses is a better move than diesel-powered buses.
Pike said electric buses actually make more financial sense, adding that the project has secured a $3 million federal grant for electric bus service if the decision is made to proceed in this direction.
“This makes it a better financial decision to go electric,” Pike said. “We would also prefer going electric because of environmental concerns. Why not if you can and if it works?”
If the decision is made for an electric bus fleet, it could be running in about 18 months provided the city issues a letter of intent by June.
Based on the need for the construction of other infrastructure needs, such as refueling stations, Pike said the operational date could fluctuate somewhat sooner or later.
“The devil is in the details,” he said. “I want to make sure the assumptions are conservative enough … given COVID-19.”
According to the Utah Department of Transportation, because of the pandemic, public transportation ridership is down across the state by 80%. In St. George public transit has declined by approximately 30%.
“The concern is if will people get back on (buses), especially when there are still concerns with the threat of this virus,” Pike said.
While the idea of a St. George-to-Springdale transit route has been around for years, it didn’t gain traction until the Utah Department of Transportation awarded $15 million toward the exploration and implementation of the route.
The route’s revenue stream would be generated from ridership fees, advertising return on investments, local financial input along with additional state or federal grant funding.
Regardless of who operates the route, what type of propulsion is used and when COVID-19 is in everyone’s rearview mirror, city officials say it should be a “tremendous” benefit to Southern Utah’s public transit system.
The route would connect the communities of St. George with Washington, Hurricane, La Verkin, Virgin, Rockville and a terminus in Springdale with return service south.
“We’ve looked at this, and it wouldn’t have the frequency of a typical bus line,” Pike said. “But it will have enough trips in the morning and going back that will be usable for everyone.”
In 2014, Hurricane Mayor John Bramall said the communities along the route anticipate a major benefit by residents commuting to Springdale for work as well as visitors and seniors who are unable to drive to Zion National Park’s gateway community.
The proposed commuter bus system would also help alleviate Springdale’s parking problems, especially during busy holidays and other times of the year when the mandatory Zion park shuttle is in operation and parking in town is at a premium.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.