'We've made mistakes'

Unforeseen problems with the Horseshoe Bend parking lot are putting a strain on Page. 

Michael Celaya, who inherited the Horseshoe Bend project when he became city manager in July, acknowledges things will get worse and could have been handled differently. 

“We know it’s coming, and in our experience, we’ve made mistakes along this trail. We have. What we’re trying to do is avoid those mistakes now…. We know we have a crisis. That’s going to happen,” Celaya said.

Page Police Chief Drew Sanders said he was “well aware” of the potential Horseshoe Bend problems before he took the job in March. The 27-year law enforcement veteran said, “It has become apparent that we really need to change our thinking on this.”

Sanders told the council Wednesday, “Our response thus far regarding traffic at Horseshoe Bend has largely been reactionary, but with the evolving increases in tourism, and experience from the recent Memorial Day holiday, it has become necessary to take a proactive approach that will allow law enforcement personnel to effectively manage the massive influx of visitors anticipated during the upcoming four-day holiday weekend.”

“It is anticipated that the influx of visitors will quickly overwhelm the available parking spaces (even with the second phase now available for use), and there will be a need to manage the flow of traffic and maintain access for emergency vehicles. City staff, in conjunction with area partners, have developed a traffic management plan that is designed to manage traffic flows effectively while preserving public safety at HSB.”

The HSB traffic was so bad over Memorial Day weekend that, at one point, the Arizona Department of Transportation had to close U.S. Route 89 and the Horseshoe Bend parking lot for nearly two hours according to their mobile alerts. 

Sanders, with limited resources to handle the problems efficiently, is concerned about the Fourth of July. He asked the council to approve $50,000 for equipment rentals and overtime pay to get ahead of the problem. 

His strategy is to treat each holiday weekend as a major event like at a stadium or at a concert.

It’s easy to point a finger, design flaws, timing, management, learning curves, but ultimately, it’s the millions of tourists the Page area attracts. They’re traveling great distances to a place few had heard of until recent years. It’s not only Horseshoe Bend seeing more tourists, it’s an international phenomenon. People are traveling more, checking off adventures on their bucket lists.

Traffic is usually sparse traveling along the two-lane, U.S. 89 between Flagstaff and Page—until Horseshoe Bend on a busy day. The state of Arizona maintains and monitors the highway. While it’s common to see large road crews in the Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff areas, it’s not so in rural areas. It’s a numbers game. Until the construction of the Horseshoe Bend parking lot, there wasn’t enough data to get reliable estimates of visitors to the bend.

How to address the Horseshoe Bend parking lot and traffic problems has dominated City Council meetings. Last week, Mayor Levi Tappan asked a simple question, “Is ADOT taking any responsibilities for their roads?”

Director of Public Works Kyle Christiansen confirmed to the Chronicle that ADOT had sent an engineer to Horseshoe Bend on Memorial Day to make an assessment but, as of Monday morning, hadn’t heard the results. 

Typically, the state uses traffic numbers and traveling speeds to determine if speed limits or if additional road construction is needed. They also realize some circumstances don’t fall into their algorithms.  Sometimes a human engineer is needed on location to know what’s really going on.

ADOT Public Information Officer Ryan Harding told the Chronicle, “Speed limits on the State Highway System are established by law and may be changed only when justified on the basis of an engineering study. ADOT will conduct engineering studies to set speed limits as near as practicable to the speed below, which 85 percent of the vehicles are traveling on the highway. Experience has shown that approximately 85 percent of motorists drive at a speed that is reasonable and prudent.”

Harding continues, “With regard to U.S. 89 near Horseshoe Bend, in anticipation of the upcoming northbound left turn lane project, which is tentatively scheduled for next year, ADOT is conducting a speed study that not only looks at the 85th percentile speeds as described above, but also the number of side streets and parking access, as well as crash history and the area’s proximity to the city of Page. All these factors will help determine the proper speed limit through this area, which is still under review at this time.” 

The question is, will adding a left turn lane to U.S. 89 be enough? Other ideas thrown about are traffic circles, service roads and additional lanes, or perhaps all the above. If growth accelerates in Page, these would be inline with future development of city property between Walmart and Horseshoe Bend.

Other unresolved issues could affect Page. There is still no formal agreement with the National Park Service regarding how the parking lot fees are split. Naturally, each side wants a larger percentage. The current traffic solutions are band-aids. A permanent solution is needed. These will certainly weigh in on Page/NPS negotiations when considering additional law enforcement, equipment and medical services. By law, all revenues of the city from the Horseshoe Bend parking lot must be used for HSB maintenance and improvements. The funds can’t be used for other purposes, such as the library, fixing potholes or city beautification. The benefit to the city isn’t direct. It’s the increase in tourism for local businesses and tax revenues.

This small town has taken on a lot of responsibilities, perhaps more than it can handle, especially given the larger entities involved. 

Sanders warned, “What happened on Memorial Day can’t continue. We are very likely asking for a public health crisis out there, and that may turn into somebody like the state shutting us down or the feds, and we would like to control it ahead of time so we can avoid that.”


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