Sabino Canyon

Residents and visitors have spent much of the year walking the paved road through Sabino Canyon after an appeal prevented the new operators of the tram service from implementing modernized vehicles and payment systems.

The Sabino Canyon shuttle service is on its way to making a comeback. 

Though an expected return date has not yet been decided, the Coronado National Forest will have a new, modernized shuttle traveling from the Sabino Canyon recreation area into the canyon.

The first step in launching the new operation and finalizing its special use permit is through a series of tests by vehicles labeled “not in use” currently traveling up and down the trail, checking for internet service. The goal is to operate an educational information system synchronized with shuttle stops, according to Heidi Schewel, public affairs officer for the Coronado National Forest.  The forest service chose not to renew the special use permit for the former permit holder, Sabino Canyon Tours Incorporated. 

“We got a lot of feedback from the public that they wanted to see a more modernized shuttle system for future operation,” Schewel said. “Our goal was to determine what was the best mode of transportation that would meet what we were looking for in a transportation system in Sabino Canyon.”

Schewel said the forest service decided to open up the permit for a competitive bidding process earlier this year. Bidders were evaluated by an independent panel of experts in transportation systems. 

The Regional Partnering Center, a nonprofit arm of the Pima Association of Governments, in partnership with Tucson Electric and Power, won the bid for a five-year special use permit.  

Don Ricketts, owner of the former tram service, appealed the decision but was ultimately unsuccessful in his effort. 

The departure of the old tram, and the delay in operation of the new one, has left some regular visitors frustrated with the change. 

“If we were 40 years younger we would walk up,” said Patricia Clark, a Tempe resident who recently took the drive down with her husband, Jeffrey, in hopes of taking a ride in the tram. “I doubt we’ll come back unless there is something to ride.” 

Clark and other Sabino Canyon visitors do admit they’re sad to see the old tram leave. 

“If you really want to see the area, you need to be in the open trolley,” Jeffrey said. “I would go if there were nothing else, but I wouldn’t like it.”

Although the halt in service in recent months has left some visitors disappointed, the change comes from a public desire to see a modernized transportation system in place at Sabino Canyon, according to Shewel. 

The Regional Partnering Center declined to comment on the update, and deferred to the forest service. On the center’s website it says that zero-emission, electric shuttles will be produced and put into operation no later than July 2019. 

An RPC proposal would include 62-passenger, open-air shuttles equipped with an electronic payment system and audio narration available in multiple languages that could be played through a set of headphones. 

However, the only confirmation the Forest Service could provide is that gasoline powered shuttles will go into service in the interim while electric shuttles are produced. Details about the shuttle, its features and start date have not yet been decided.

In the meantime, visitors should contact the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area for information about safe hiking in Sabino Canyon. 

Chandler Donald is a University of Arizona journalism student and Tucson Local Media intern.

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