Proposed truck bypass route would destroy Vernal mountain biking trails, opponents say

Published: Thursday, June 5 2014 10:20 p.m. MDT

VERNAL — A proposal to build a road that would route heavy truck traffic around downtown Vernal is seeing opposition from mountain bikers and some business owners in Uintah County.

The 12-mile Ashley Valley Energy Route, as it's been dubbed by project managers, would exit U.S. 40 at McCoy Flats on the Vernal's west end and reconnect with the highway south of Naples on Vernal's east end. There's just one problem with that plan, according to mountain biker Tildon Jones.

"The red line is the highway," he said, tracing the bypass route on a map. "It goes right through the (trail) network.

"I haven't heard a specific reason why this is the only way they can go," Jones said. "We feel like there is a route that could be found that could meet both the biker/recreation needs and the highway needs. I think there's room for both out here."

McCoy Flats serves as the hub for a hiking and mountain biking trail complex that began as a labor of love 15 years ago. Mountain bikers dedicated hours of their spare time to build nearly 60 miles of trail with shovels and hoes. Their hard work has paid off — attracting riders from around the West, accolades from national mountain biking magazines and the support of the Bureau of Land Management.

"We spent $80,000 plus ongoing maintenance," said Jason West, recreation planner for the BLM's Vernal field office.

That money paid, in part, for construction of a bathroom and a covered pavilion at the McCoy Flats trailhead, as well signs identifying the nine trails that crisscross the area, West said.

The initial line for the Ashley Valley Energy Route would have run through the middle of the BLM's trailhead improvements. That line has since been moved farther south to avoid the trailhead, according to Cheri McCurdy, director of the Uintah Transportation Special Service District. The new line, however, still cuts across parts of at least two established trails, McCurdy acknowledged.

McCurdy pointed out that the McCoy Flats route was chosen from a list of 13 possible options after at least two years of meetings with representatives from more than a dozen stakeholder groups. She believes an alternate route for heavy truck traffic is critical for Vernal's continued development.

"We have 27,000 vehicles daily in our downtown area, and 10,000 of those are industrial (vehicles)," McCurdy said. "And 80 percent of those carry hazardous materials. This is about safety."

Mountain bikers aren't the only ones who find themselves at odds with the transportation district's proposals. Some downtown business owners also worry what the bypass route will do to their customer base.

"I consider the highway through town to be the commerce highway," said Dan Dilsaver, owner of Auto Works Inc. "I think if they succeed in building that bypass, they will take commerce away from our city."

Reared in Moab, Dilsaver said he witnessed firsthand what happened when bypass routes were built around Green River and Price.

"It was devastating to their local economies," he said.

McCurdy doesn't believe business will drop off in Vernal if the road is built. She said she welcomes differing views though as the project seeks approval from the BLM, which is accepting public comment through June 12 for the initial public scoping of the proposal.

"We want opinions," McCurdy said. "There may be things out there that we're not aware of. There may be concerns with the downtown area that we haven't considered. But they need to be substantial comments, not a 'yes' or 'no' vote."

West said the information provided by the public "is part of what drives our success in planning" projects on BLM lands.

"We need the public's input to help us make an informed decision," he said. "So public participation is highly encouraged, and we welcome all comments."

Those interested in commenting on the proposed Ashley Valley Energy Route can send an email to Stephanie Howard at showard@blm.gov or visit https://www.blm.gov/epl-front-office/eplanning/nepa/nepa_register.do.

Email: gliesik@deseretnews.com, Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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