There won’t be any shuttle rides up to Anderson Dam for a monsoon-season dip this summer.
For that matter, I won’t be surprised if there’s no shuttle when the first winter rains hit. Still, the absence may end up benefiting us.
The Sabino Canyon shuttle, a famous Tucson attraction, will be closed as of this Sunday, as my colleague Joe Ferguson reported Monday. You can trace it back to two sides playing hardball as their long conflict nears its likely conclusion.
Donn Ricketts, the owner of Sabino Canyon Tours, has operated the shuttle for more than 30 years and is trying everything he can to hang on to the contract. In December, he sued to stop the process for selecting a new shuttle operator, an effort that failed. Now he’s using every last administrative appeal he can before giving up the operation.
The Forest Service, on the other hand, will do anything to get rid of him, it appears, even if it means losing shuttle service for a few months. It’s been apparent for years that the Coronado National Forest had lost faith in Ricketts’ willingness and ability to improve service at the canyon.
As one Forest Service report put it: “Due to performance concerns, current and past district rangers on the Santa Catalina Ranger District have denied the current permit holder a longer-term permit, and have expressed a desire to terminate the permit altogether.”
The current Coronado National Forest supervisor, Kerwin Dewberry, made his feelings pretty clear in a June 15 letter to Ricketts, which Ricketts’ lawyer shared with me. Dewberry verbally offered to Ricketts extending Sabino Canyon Tours’ contract till the beginning of September. Ricketts replied that he’d need another year to make it worth continuing to operate.
Dewberry responded in the letter, “the permit is not being extended and will expire June 30, 2018.”
He went on to tell Ricketts and Sabino Canyon Tours, or SCT, to clear out its stuff.
“SCT must sell or remove any privately owned property in the Permit area within 30 days, by midnight July 30 2018, and must restore the site to the satisfaction of the Forest Service.”
He went on, “If SCT fails to sell or remove any privately owned property in the Permit area within 30 days (July 30, 2018), it will become the property of the United States, and SCT will be responsible for all costs associated with the removal of the property.”
That does not sound like a district ranger who wants Ricketts or his business anywhere near Sabino Canyon anymore.
Ricketts’ attorney, Kevin Garden, told me they believe the Forest Service has been biased against Sabino Canyon Tours, which has offered to upgrade its trams and other equipment as part of a new, long-term contract. But bias is hard to prove, so, having lost the effort to stop the award of a new contract, they are appealing the selection of the Regional Partnering Center on the grounds that it doesn’t have any actual employees.
The Regional Partnering Center is a creation of the Pima Association of Governments, partnering with Tucson Electric Power and others. Its shuttle will be operated by Total Transit Enterprises, which runs the Sun Shuttle transit system. That may be why they have no employees, and I suspect the Forest Service will say it’s OK.
The new shuttle operator plans to use Sun shuttles for the first eight or so months after the contract is confirmed. But after that, it will use open-air electric shuttles that have headsets for the narration of the trip up the canyon instead of public-address systems. It will resolve most of the complaints people have about the shuttles, including noise, pollution and cash-only payment for tickets.
But Ricketts is willing to fight to the last to preserve his contract. Once a decision is rendered on his current appeal, there is another level of appeal, to Washington, D.C., that could take 60 days to resolve.
The Regional Partnering Center won’t order its electric shuttles till all the appeals are used up, and it will take eight months for the manufacturer to make them, said Jim DeGrood, deputy director of the Pima Association of Governments.
“Once we give them a down payment, it’s about eight months. We need to have the permit in hand to justify the release of those funds,” he said.
The original timeline, with the new operators taking over July 1, would have meant the new shuttles could have been ready in the high season, around February 2019. But now, that’s pushed off into the indefinite future as Ricketts labors to the last to preserve his longtime domain.
All sides are willing to consider extending shuttle service this summer, but Ricketts wants a longer commitment than two months, and the Regional Partnering Center would need to do some work to get its ticket-vending system set up.
Forest Service spokeswoman Heidi Schewel told me, “We’d like to continue a transportation service in Sabino Canyon, and we’re exploring our options right now.”
These sides ought to be able to work out a temporary arrangement, preferably with the new operator using Sun shuttles. But if shutting down the shuttle for a few months is the cost of getting rid of the old operator, I guess we’ll have to suffer its absence. It’s past time to move forward.
This column has been updated to clarify that Sabino Canyon Tours has offered to upgrade its equipment as part of a new contract deal.