NPS: Express train doesn’t fit guidelines

This structure at Canyon View Information Plaza was designed to serve as a future light-rail transit station.

Grand Canyon Railway president W. David Chambers unveiled an idea in January for an express commuter train from Williams to the park. At the time, the idea seemed to be met with enthusiasm in Williams, but the NPS felt the railway proposal did not fit in with the transit system’s objectives.

This summer, Chambers added a few more options to be considered in the railway proposal.

"One option would be to connect Canyon View Information Plaza with the line that comes into the Grand Canyon (Maswik Transportation Center)," Chambers said. "It (the line) would be using the same corridor where the light-rail was planned to run. Another option is to have a staging area near the Grand Canyon airport, connecting with our line and going into the park."

GCNP’s Brad Traver, who heads up the park’s project management team, said the railway’s proposals do not follow Congressional guidelines. The transit report now in Washington includes five options, all using a staging area north of Tusayan.

"The railway wants to be included as another option, not in the report to Congress, but in a subsequent evaluation of those options," Traver said. "We already made the decision to put the station on the north side of Tusayan. We’re not changing that decision until somebody tells us we have to. That’s the biggest reason we are reluctant to add the railway proposal to the EA because the station location decision has already been made."

But Chambers said the railway’s alternatives would alleviate a lot of current concerns or problems.

"There are two issues here. One, it would ensure higher use of Canyon View Information Plaza and two, I think it meets the park’s objective of eliminating all parks and buses from the park, except those with hotel reservations," he said.

Chambers said that the staging area north of Tusayan could be replaced with the staging area by the airport.

"Of course, the Tusayan folks were concerned about our proposal. I think this would alleviate their concerns," Chambers said. "But running tracks from the airport to hook up with our line would add more costs. But it’s still less than light rail."

Grand Canyon’s future appeared to be headed in the direction of light rail. But after a congressional delegation visited a few years ago, many questions began to surface, a lot of them revolving around money.

"Congress told them to look at buses rather than light rail," Chambers said. "If they were encouraged to explore the possibility of using express rail, I think that they would. Express rail was not on the table before; we’re bringing it to the table and encouraging legislators and the Park Service to take it further and do a complete EIS."

Chambers said the decision will be significant enough to warrant a full environmental impact statement.

"The scope of the EIS should be broadened to include issues with State Route 64, not just the park," Chambers said. "We believe congestion problems begin at the I-40 intersection and not at the gates to the park."

Chambers has some proponents on his side when it comes to the dangers of SR 64. Veteran Coconino County sheriff Joe Richards can share stories on that subject.

"It has a lot of tragedy on it," Richards said. "That stretch of highway has been marked with many, many different traffic accidents. How many, I couldn’t tell you. But the volume of traffic has grown over the years, which hasn’t helped."

Traffic congestion and accidents are a big part of the most recent express rail package put together by the railway. Information and photos on recent accidents are included.

The package quotes the Arizona Department of Transportation as stating "the level of traffic out there right now is at capacity for a two-lane roadway. We have got to come up with alternatives to deal with that additional traffic."

Richards would not comment specifically on any Grand Canyon Railway alternatives. He did say, however, that "it’s a viable alternative means of transportation for those wishing to visit the Grand Canyon. It provides good scenery, a relaxed atmosphere and gets them to the destination safely."

In short, the express rail idea proposes a main staging area in Williams with trains leaving every hour for a 90-minute ride to Grand Canyon. There would be 12 trains, each with a 145-seat capacity.

All development would take place in Williams and Flagstaff and the cost would run in the area of $70 million.

Traver said he saw several problems with the railway’s proposals, such as their contention that people will voluntarily stop in Williams to ride an express train to the Canyon.

"They say enough will stop and if they don’t ... we can’t say, sorry, there are no parking spaces here, and then ask them to drive to Williams for a parking lot," Traver said. "Those are logistical problems that are enormous if the railway is wrong and people don’t self-select in numbers."

Chambers make reference to a poll that was conducted through Northern Arizona University’s research department.

"Seventy-four percent said they are very or somewhat likely to take the train," Chambers said. "If just 50 percent took the train, there would be absolutely no congestion in the park and no need to turn people away from the gates."

Chambers also said there have been several success stories in the past involving express rail. He points to the system constructed in Salt Lake City prior to the Olympics.

Of all the facets of the railway proposal, Traver said he has the most problems with a fee that would be charged to visitors.

"In the railway’s proposal, everyone is charged but only 20 to 25 percent of visitors would use the train," Traver said. "So 75 percent are paying the fee but not getting the service. And that’s a problem."

Chambers said the bottom line is express rail will be the least costly alternative.

"However they decide to pay for mass transit, whether it be a federal government grant to pay for infrastructure, or a subsidy or park entrance fees ... however they fund light rail or bus, they can use the same money to fund express rail," Chambers said. "I think the simplest way would be $5 per adult. If all South Rim visitors pay, that would pay for the cost of the express rail.

"When the cost of the light rail is three times the cost of express rail, that tells me if express rail can operate for $5, then light rail will be $15," he added. "If there are other ways to fund this transit without charging the visitor a transit fee, then I’m wide open to any other alternatives. But we cannot have a financial disincentive."

No matter what happens and although there are differing opinions on alternatives, the park and railway appear to be strong partners with respect for one another.

"I have a lot of respect for both Joe (Alston) and Brad, and we’ve always had a good relationship with them," Chambers said. "We may disagree on how to solve the transportation problems, but sometimes disagreements can be healthy. We’ve always tried to take the high road and communicate openly with them."

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