Coconino National Forest (CNF) staff have proposed a sweeping change to how visitors will be able to access five of its most popular trailheads in the Red Rock Ranger District. The proposed addition of shuttles — running 10 hours per day from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. with 13 runs daily — comes alongside a larger transportation master plan (TMP) initiative from the city of Sedona to expand and improve transit within city limits and the nearby village of Oak Creek. CNF’s plan will affect the trailheads at Cathedral Rock, Dry Creek, Little Horse, Mescal and Soldier Pass.

According to KAFF News, this plan was proposed to alleviate overcrowding — an increasing complaint among visitors and residents. Oftentimes, parking congestion forces many to park in neighborhoods and walk long distances to their destinations, which, in turn, crowds those who call Sedona home.

Instead of walking to approved trailheads, some choose to make their own paths. However, the National Parks Service labels trails for a reason: To allow visitors to enjoy nature without disrupting it. The agency provides different levels of trails for less experienced hikers; therefore, ignoring official trails can be as dangerous to the individual as it is damaging to the environment.

Mark Goshorn, special use permit administrator for Red Rock Ranger District said these hybrid shuttles will also cut greenhouse gas emissions in the areas they are used.

“The intent of this project is to encourage alternative transportation to our trailheads via hiking or nonmotorized bikes along our established trails, or [by] utilizing the shuttle buses,” Goshorn said. “Trailhead transit would also reduce the number of vehicles that are sitting at idle or circling around a trailhead parking lot waiting for an open parking spot, further lowering the carbon footprint.”

For the Dry Creek, Little Horse and Mescal trailheads, shuttles will arrive and depart alongside visitors traveling in cars, or through other forms of transportation. However, visitors can only access Cathedral Rock and Soldier Pass aboard city shuttles or nonmotorized methods, such as biking or hiking, during hours of operation. Before and after the shuttles are running, vehicles will be allowed to enter regardless of time. Additionally, cars that arrive prior to shuttles are permitted to leave after they start.

That said, not all Sedona residents are excited about this proposal. Red Rock News managing editor Christopher Fox Graham wrote an editorial about this issue — which involved vocally criticizing both the TMP and the Red Rock transit expansion. In particular, Graham expressed frustration at the city’s willingness to invest so much in a service that primarily benefits tourists.

“Tourists pay 77% of Sedona’s sales taxes, but the optics among residents will be that tourists are reaping 100% of the benefits,” Graham said. “The bus system should target residents first, get us on board first — both metaphorically and literally — then expand service to tourists. The current plan does so in reverse, making it both illogical and financially wasteful.”

Additionally, this is not the first time Sedona has attempted to expand its mass transit system with tourists in mind, Graham said. The Sedona RoadRunner was designed as a tourist circulator and an easy way for visitors to access some of Sedona’s most famous locales. It was, however, never truly accepted by residents, according to an article from Red Rock News from the period RoadRunner was active. Ultimately, the Sedona RoadRunner was taken off the roads in 2011 due to its high cost and low usage.

This episode from Sedona’s past is not the only reason Graham and others are jaded toward the idea of a transit expansion. Most tourists do not even consider using public transit while in Sedona, he explained. Once they have taken the time to drive, whether in personal vehicles or rental cars, it makes sense for them to continue using such transportation for the duration of their trip. Due to this, Graham and like-minded residents are against another tourist circulator. 

“The current model will lead to a collapse, like the Sedona Roadrunner in 2011, unless there is a major redirection to focus on residents first,” Graham said. “This current council may be sold on its success, but in future elections, more skeptical and critical candidates could get elected, running the risk of ending a program deemed wasteful or ineffective.” 

If the Red Rock transit expansion is approved, development will proceed over the course of spring 2021. Presently, CNF staff are working to conduct research and consider public opinion surrounding this mass transit expansion. Those with questions, comments or concerns are encouraged to voice their opinions by sending an email to comments-southwestern-coconino-redrock@usda.gov with “Trailhead Transit” in the subject line.

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