Next summer, a bus straight outta St. George hopes to help Zion out with its traffic
As Zion National Park’s crowds peak in the summer, cars often back up on State Highway 9 from the west entrance into the neighboring town of Springdale.
For the roughly 550 people who live in Springdale, those traffic jams don’t mean a delayed vacation. State Highway 9 is the only main road through town, so Mayor Barbara Bruno said when it’s blocked, some residents can’t get home.
“Springdale is impacted by what happens inside Zion National Park probably more than any other locality,” Mayor Barbara Bruno said. “It's a pretty big deal.”
The number of people coming to Zion has just about doubled in the past two decades. Despite sweltering heat this July, more than 560,000 people visited the park that month, making it the fifth-busiest July the park has ever seen.
Springdale residents have a front row seat to both the good and bad sides of that growth.
Tourism brings an influx of money to town. But Bruno said many of Springdale’s businesses struggle to find workers. There’s just not enough housing, and many employees commute from Washington County’s larger cities, such as Hurricane and St. George.
“We have over a thousand people that come from downriver, so to speak, to work here every day. And they're driving personal cars,” Bruno said.
That’s where a new public transit plan comes in. Starting next year, a bus route is scheduled to connect Springdale with St. George in hopes of making life easier for both tourists and residents.
The bus route’s details are still being finalized, but St. George Public Works Director Cameron Cutler said it should be up and running by late summer 2024.
The route will travel more than 40 miles from the Dixie Convention Center parking lot in St. George to Springdale, with probable stops in the cities of Washington, Hurricane, La Verkin and Virgin along the way. The plan is to take riders from St. George to Springdale in just a little more time than it takes to drive there.
“If it took two hours, people might not use it because it's taking too long,” Cutler said. “So we're hoping that it's just going to be over an hour.”
The one-way fare would likely cost around $8 per person. That number comes from a 2020 analysis recommendation after it compared the Zion route to similar bus systems, such as those at Yosemite National Park in California and Acadia National Park in Maine.
The service would involve five diesel buses — four running at a given time and one backup — and will be overseen by the city of St. George, which already operates its local SunTran bus line. Each bus would have around 30 seats for passengers.
Based on an analysis from 2020, it’s estimated that between 59,000 and 112,000 people would ride the bus each year.
The schedule isn’t set in stone, but Cutler said one potential scenario could have the buses leaving St. George roughly every two hours from 6 a.m. through the evening. During peak season, there may be some express routes. But the frequency will ultimately depend on what ridership looks like once the wheels start rolling.
“We're going to try it out, see how it works with these four buses, and hopefully cross our fingers that it's successful,” Cutler said. “It's kind of a little bit of a guinea pig.”
The idea for a transit route between Springdale and other cities in Washington County began circulating more than a decade ago. But it wasn’t until the Utah Department of Transportation committed a $15 million grant in 2018 to support the project's first decade that things got off the ground.
But even with the grant, locals want to know who's paying for it. The grant will go toward start-up costs, such as the buses, a new facility to house them and the first few years of service. A portion of a Washington County sales tax for transportation passed in 2019 is expected to cover the ongoing operating costs — estimated at more than $2 million a year.
“It's not really the St George city residents paying for it. It's the rest of the county,” Cutler said. “That's actually what's paying for it with tourism dollars.”
When it comes to tourism dollars, Zion brings in its share. Last year, the park attracted 4.7 million visitors and generated nearly $1 billion for the local economy.
As visitorship continues to grow, Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office Director Brittany McMichael said the bus could be an integral part of a broader long-term plan to keep overcrowding from ruining both visitors’ and residents’ days.
“We're very hopeful that it will help with the sustainability of the tourism economy and making sure that the visitors have a good experience.”
Her team often hears requests from St. George tourists who want a way to visit Zion without a car, she said. Without this route, the current alternatives would be a private shuttle or a rideshare app, both of which she said would be fairly expensive compared to the planned $8 fare.
From the new bus route’s terminal in Springdale, visitors will then be able to connect with Zion National Park’s free shuttle service to get from town to the park’s most popular attractions in Zion Canyon.
“Sometimes people get kind of overwhelmed with the drive and then parking [at Zion],” McMichael said. “If they're just getting on a bus, being dropped off at a shuttle stop, hopping on the shuttle … That's a pretty seamless experience.”
While the rest of southwest Utah may primarily view the bus as a way to ferry tourists, Bruno said, Springdale sees the plan as a much-needed commuter option for the town’s workforce. That’s why she and other leaders — starting with previous Mayor Stan Smith — have pushed for a bus plan like this one for years.
If the route’s schedule can sync up with work shifts, her hope is that many of the town’s employees could ride it into and out of town. But with ongoing housing shortages and growing crowds at Zion, she doesn’t expect the bus to erase all of the town’s challenges.
“That could make a big dent in the number of cars that are coming in,” Bruno said, “but it's certainly not going to solve the whole problem.”