By [Concerned Sedona Resident]
(May 13, 2021)
We “retired” three years ago after preparing our 12th and what we thought would be final article about “selling” Sedona to the world. We felt we had exposed all aspects of the City Council, Chamber of Commerce and tourism cabal. Recent events prove us wrong.
Sedona traffic issues again swirl about. Residents, including our local newspaper editor, again propose all manner of mostly ill-informed traffic solutions that can never happen. Despite years of discussion, the lack of understanding about what is legal and possible and what is not continues to generate one unlikely traffic “solution” after another.
Possible traffic mitigations hinge on five questions. First is who owns and controls the land the proposed project would take place on? Next, does the proposal attempt to exclude some people from public services paid for with their public funds? Then there is the question of just where will the millions of dollars to pay for the solution come from? That is followed by the question; is this really a “solution” that will make enough difference to matter or measure? Finally, what are the negative aspects and perhaps unintended consequences that go with all the positive benefits being imagined?
Land ownership sets major boundaries on what the City can and cannot do. Failure to understand who owns and controls the various lands in and around Sedona is probably the most critical factor leading to the most common cannot-happen traffic mitigation suggestions.
Specifically, the city cannot build on, pave, bridge, etc. any site the city does not own without at least many years of review and negotiation – if the proposed development is even allowable at all. Most of the land surrounding Sedona belongs to the US Forest Service, a federal agency governed by federal laws, not state or local ones. Even some areas inside the city are outside the city’s control. Both of our main streets, for example, belong to and are controlled by the State of Arizona as state highways.
Just as you cannot simply go tell your neighbor you want to use a piece of their property for your own purposes, Sedona cannot just go tell a federal, state or county agency or a private owner that we want some of their land for city purposes, regardless of what those purposes may be.
All agencies owning land both inside and outside the city have their own purposes using that land. Those purposes are usually designated by law and cannot simply be ignored and often cannot be negotiated away.
True, some traffic solutions being proposed for Sedona are done in other tourist-heavy locations like national parks, major recreation sites and even congested city cores. The huge difference between those and Sedona comes down to ownership and control. Sedona simply does not have ownership or control over most of the land areas involved in most of the proposed traffic solutions.
In addition to misunderstanding ownerships, traffic schemes seeking to restrict public use of public lands also abound. Fundamentally, if the land, facility, road, etc. is built and/or maintained with public money, it is open to public use – by all publics – and the City cannot restrict that use except by agreement with the landowner. Proposals like building roads with public funds “for locals only” cannot happen even if the roads were owned by the city.
Forest lands and trails around Sedona, for example, belong to everyone. Our two main streets, Highways 179 and 89A, are public travel routes paid for and maintained with public money. City streets are also paid for with public money and tourists have as much right to use all of them as do residents. The City cannot restrict people from driving through town or up the Canyon or from using forest parking areas except in limited safety or emergency situations. The city can restrict people from parking along city streets near trailheads but not from parking lots on forest land even if it adjoins a city street unless some kind of agreement has been negotiated with the Forest Service.
The third question in evaluating traffic solutions is the inevitable one of money. How will it be paid for and by whom? Those proposing various solutions too often ignore this reality or blithely wave it off as a minor concern. It is not.
Without exception, all the proposals involving roadbuilding, paving, bridging, tunneling, parking lots, etc. would cost many millions of dollars each. The major ones come with a price tag of many tens of millions. Sedona does not have that kind of money to spend and cannot generate it. Neither do the two counties we share, nor does the state.
State gas tax revenue is the main source of funding for much of the roadbuilding and maintenance happening in Arizona. The State of Arizona collects 19 cents of tax per gallon of gas sold and 27 cents for each gallon of diesel. City and county governments do not levy a gas tax but they do get a share of state gas tax revenues. Sedona receives just under $1 million annually. That is not enough to even do initial studies on most proposed new roadway projects. Coconino County receives about $11 million and Yavapai County receives around $13.5 million each year from the state-collected fuel tax. That is still not enough if both counties spent all their money for a couple of years on just one new Sedona traffic mitigation roadway and ignored the needs of every other county road. It’s simply never going to happen.
The state is not much better off. While Arizona takes in about $1.5 billion in fuel tax revenue annually, it shares about half of that with city and county governments. That revenue declined just over 10% this past year due to covid-reduced vehicle travel. Aging state highways are demanding more and more of this revenue to keep them in usable condition and construction costs continue to rise. The projected state deficit for needed roadway work over the next decade runs way up in the many billions of dollars.
Neither city, county nor state government are in any position to fund new local road projects. Forest Service budgets have been consistently cut every year by congress for some time putting the Service in no position to assist with roadwork either, even on their own lands.
Cost of maintaining any new traffic infrastructure are also part of the money question. The price of planning, designing and building new a travel route is only part of the financing question. Climate issues, deterioration from vehicle use and strata under the road all impact maintenance costs. These may run as high as ten percent of the initial construction costs annually.
The fourth question in deciding a “solution’s” viability is whether the action will really solve anything at all. Just what level of traffic use might the new route get and is that enough to make a detectible difference anywhere? A lot of proposals sound good to the proposer who is often thinking about how they might use a new travel option but not about how many others would do likewise.
Traffic car counts on 89A in the middle of Sedona average over 30 thousand cars a day. On 179, those numbers reach a daily average of over 14 thousand. That’s daily average over a whole year, not what we experience during higher seasonal levels. Most of those trips happen in daytime over about a 10-hour period. Do the math. What proposed backdoor, cut across or bypass route could handle enough cars to make a difference in those volumes?
Finally, everything has tradeoffs. That includes new traffic routes. What is spent on one of these means less is spent on other community needs and programs. Taking vehicles off one route most often leads to jamming more onto another. Bypass and connector routes destroy neighborhood livability and diminish property values. Routings past institutions like schools ramp up safety issues while those through forest lands mar scenic views, drive away wildlife, destroy their habitat, raise the wildlife-vehicle collision rate and impact other recreational uses of that land.
These five issues must all be calculated into the equation of cost vs benefit and the decision to pursue or not pursue any proposed traffic solution.
So, how do the main proposed solutions measure up against these criteria? We’ll look at that in our next (Over) Selling Sedona article.