Visitors admire the water in Sabino Creek at the first crossing aboard the Sabino Canyon Tours tram at Sabino Canyon, 5700 N. Sabino Canyon Road. Officials are evaluating bids for potential new tram operators in the canyon northeast of downtown.

Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star

In mid-June, the Forest Service issued a final assessment of what changes it is looking for in the heavily used Sabino Canyon shuttle service.

Among other things, the proposed modifications include quieter vehicles, interpretive narration that can’t be heard outside of the shuttles, stricter standards for traditional fuel-burning engines and a maximum 6,000 annual round trips. The current fleet, run by a private contractor, is composed of decades-old gasoline and diesel shuttles.

“There is a need to improve shuttle system safety, reduce noise, reduce potential for user conflicts/accidents, meet state and local emission standards, and protect water quality, federally-listed species, and historic properties,” the document reads.

The final Environmental Assessment (EA) came on the heels of the Forest Service announcing there would be a competitive process to determine who the new operator will be, as first reported in June. That reversed the agency’s previously stated position that the current operator — Sabino Canyon Tours — would be able to get a new special-use permit without competition as long as it was able to make requested upgrades to its service.

Unsurprisingly, that decision and the subsequent EA were not warmly received by the tour company and its owner, Donn Ricketts, who has overseen operations for years and is hoping to carry on for another 20 more.

An early August letter penned by the Virginia-based Garden Law Firm on behalf of the tour company raises 10 objections to the EA, many of which are echoed by another letter submitted by the National Forest Recreation Association.

Among them is Sabino Canyon Tour’s position that the assessment does not consider “issuing a new permit … without competition as a reasonable alternative.”

The agency’s decision to open the process goes against past practice and the letter of federal regulations, Kevin Garden argues in an earlier letter.

“The current motivation of term permit holders to invest in their privately owned structures on federal land would be diminished if they could not be confident that their permits would be re-issued after their current term,” he went on to say.

Deputy Coronado National Forest Supervisor Deb Bumpus told the Road Runner that her agency can’t comment on pending objections. However, she previously told the Star that the Forest Service’s decision was made after consulting with attorneys, who said that interest expressed by other possible operators required a competitive process.

U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, who in recent months heard from a number of prominent constituents criticizing the current shuttle arrangement, praised what she described as the Forest Service’s “right decision.”

Stretching to almost four pages, including footnotes, Sabino Canyon Tour’s lengthiest objection has to do with the allegedly unfair portrayal of the company by the Forest Service.

In its final assessment, the Forest Service cites a number of comment cards left by visitors that relay complaints about shuttle exhaust and noise, among other issues. The agency also looked at unsolicited feedback about the recreation area provided on TripAdvisor’s website, which the Forest Service notes were mostly positive “in regards to” the shuttle.

But, the agency argues, “There is no way decipher the positive/negative comments about the SCRA from the positive/negative comments about the shuttle.”

In his August letter, Garden argues that if the vast majority of Sabino Canyon visitors have a positive experience (the popular attraction has a perfect score on TripAdvisor after over 3,700 reviews), then the current shuttle system is “not reducing the ability of visitors to enjoy Sabino Canyon.”

Sabino Canyon Tours also objected to the requirements that any shuttle capable of exceeding 25 mph be “highway legal,” “arbitrary,” decibel limits ands caps on annual rides and daily round trips, which Ricketts said could result in people being stranded up the canyon during peak season, among other things.

For the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, one of only a handful of groups to raise objections to the EA, there’s really only one major issue: the plan’s failure to consider all-electric or compressed-natural-gas shuttles.

“Electric-powered vehicles do not directly emit pollutants and greenhouse gases as do their petroleum-powered counterparts,” a July letter from the chapter’s director, Sandy Bahr, reads. “The Forest Service should be setting an example in this arena instead of contributing to our problems.”

Bahr later told the Road Runner that not considering requiring such technology was a “missed opportunity.”

“The way it’s drafted, it seems like they could end up with something that pollutes more and doesn’t really address the noise issue,” she added.

The Forest Service says the EA’s purpose is to “authorize a shuttle system … without dictating the specific technology that will be used.”

Paul Marques, president of Friends of Sabino Canyon, which has advocated for changes to the shuttle system, including the use alternative-energy shuttles, was not surprised that the EA did not require certain fuels. He said the federal government is often reluctant to specify a technology in such plans.

“They don’t like to get prescriptive,” he said, adding later: “I want electric, I want quiet, I want clean, I want safe. But I think we’re all a little nervous about what might find its way into the final awardee’s contract language.”

Bumpus told the Road Runner that meetings with objectors with standing are tentatively scheduled for early October.

DOWN THE ROAD

Open houses — Over the next week there will be a handful of open houses regarding proposed changes to the Sun Shuttle service, primarily in Marana, Oro Valley and the Green Valley/Sahuarita area. There will be a separate meeting for each of the proposals, and the details can be found at the Sun Tran website: tinyurl.com/y9rb7eoj

River Road work — From Tuesday, Sept. 5, through Oct. 5, the county will be performing a micro-sealing surface treatment on East River Road between North Country Club Road and Dodge Boulevard. The work will be done between 5 a.m. and 6 p.m.

From Tuesday through Sept. 12, the contractor will remove pavement markings, perform crack sealing, patching and other work. From Sept. 25 through Oct. 5, crews will be applying the surface treatment and then restripe the road and add pavement markings. Motorists can expect lane restrictions and reduced speed. Sheriff’s deputies, flaggers and a pilot car will be assisting vehicles through the work zone.

Contact: mwoodhouse@tucson.com or 573-4235. On Twitter: @murphywoodhouse