A nonprofit managed by the Pima Association of Governments is hoping to bring an electric shuttle service to the beloved and heavily visited Sabino Canyon Recreational Area.
If selected by the Forest Service, the new shuttle operation would also feature an individualized, multilingual interpretation system to teach visitors about the canyon without excessive noise for other users, and multiple means of paying for tickets, including with credit cards, according to the Regional Partnering Center’s Jan. 26 proposal to the Coronado National Forest.
If RPC’s proposal is selected, there would also be a transit connection from Udall Park to the canyon, making it easier for carless and low-income residents to access the miles of paved and dirt trails.
A June 2017 environmental assessment of the current shuttle service, operated by the private concessionaire Sabino Canyon Tours, identified noise from the gas- and diesel-engine shuttle vehicles and air quality as key issues to be addressed by the new permit holder. It also noted an interest among users for alternative fuels, but did not dictate any specific technologies for future operators.
Much of the estimated $2.8 million in startup costs for the RPC proposal would be covered by a $1.5 million donation and $1 million zero-interest loan from Tucson Electric Power. The remainder would be covered by PAG, the regional metropolitan planning organization that also oversees the RTA.
“That’s going to make the project feasible,” TEP spokeswoman Sherri Cadeaux said of her company’s contribution.
As proposed, the service would be managed by Arizona-based Total Transit Enterprises, which already oversees the local Sun Shuttle service, and the five 62-passenger electric shuttles would be provided by California-based Trams International.
The Forest Service did not provide the total number of applicants who responded to the prospectus for a new shuttle permit by deadline.
Sabino Canyon Tours, the current shuttle operator, filed suit against the Forest Service in late December in response to the prospectus, arguing that it violates federal policy, and later asked a judge to suspend the prospectus process, ideally before the Jan. 26 proposal due date, according to court documents.
With that date come and gone, owner Donn Ricketts said he doesn’t hold out much hope for the lawsuit.
“I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere further,” he said.
The Forest Service said it can’t comment on current litigation in response to a request from the Star. PAG’s Jim DeGrood said the lawsuit “did not chill our interest.”
It was previously the Forest Service’s position that Ricketts should enjoy a so-called right of refusal, meaning he could be awarded a new 20-year permit without competition as long as his company was able to meet the agency’s requirements.
Last May, the agency decided to make the permitting process competitive in response to interest from other potential permittees. That change came amid a wave a public opposition to the noncompetitive process and the intervention of U.S. Rep. Martha McSally.
Ricketts said his company submitted a proposal in response to the prospectus that also features electric vehicles and changes to the current cash-only ticket system his company now uses. He said he has long been open to alternative fuel vehicles and other improvements to the service, but that the short-term Forest Service permits his company has been operating under over the last decade have made it difficult to make substantial investments, claims that are echoed in the lawsuit.
He said the public support that PAG receives gives the organization an edge over his company.
“They’ll more than likely get it because they have more money than I’ve got,” he said, adding that he’s still paying down a home equity loan he took out to support the business after major 2006 flooding in the canyon.
“I don’t think you could imagine that you could do better than having such a capable group of professionals and agencies taking over the operation of the shuttle,” Friends of Sabino Canyon’s Paul Marques said of RPC’s proposal. Marques has been a longtime critic of the current operator.
The Forest Service intends to make a final decision on who will run the shuttle in February. Whoever wins out will begin or continue operating the service in July.