Traffic patrols increase near Grand Canyon Skywalk

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By Felicia Fonseca
Kingman, Arizona (AP) February 2011

Mohave County sheriff’s officials are targeting speeders in a remote area near the Grand Canyon Skywalk, hoping to prevent traffic crashes on roads that have sharp curves, rugged washboards and narrow shoulders.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Don Bischoff said authorities expect an influx of visitors to the Skywalk because of the Chinese New Year, a major holiday that honors the lunar new year. Many Chinese take commercial tours to the Skywalk from Las Vegas, where the city plans big celebrations.

“We’ve had great success with most of the tour companies,” Bischoff said. “Where we see a problem is when they have a driver who normally doesn’t go into that area.”

The Hualapai Tribe operates the Skywalk – a glass-bottom structure that suspends visitors more than 4,000 feet above the floor of the Grand Canyon. About 75 percent of the nearly 620,000 people who visit Grand Canyon West – home of the Skywalk – get there by vehicle.

The roads that lead to the reservation have posted speed limits that vary from 25 mph to 55 mph, but Bischoff said that motorists often ignore that because of the remoteness of the area. What they don’t anticipate is the unforgiving nature of the roads – one with almost 90-degree curves, narrow shoulders and the other that takes such a beating from tour buses that it’s hard to keep control when speeding, he said.

More than 100 traffic crashes have occurred over three years on Pierce Ferry Road off U.S. 93 and Diamond Bar Road, which leads to the Skywalk – 30 percent of which have resulted in serious injury or death, authorities said.

“For a stretch of road like that, I would think that’s a little high,” Bischoff said.

Two people died last August when a vehicle traveling east on Diamond Bar Road crossed the center line and collided head-on with a vehicle going westbound. Two Chinese tourists died six weeks later when the bus they were traveling in drifted off Pierce Ferry Road on a sharp curve, the driver overcorrected and the vehicle rolled.

Other crashes included single vehicle accidents with livestock, and Bischoff said it’s not uncommon to catch vehicles going more than 90 mph in the area.

The sheriff’s office has six deputies on patrol in the area – up from the usual 1-2 – and will maintain that presence through Feb. 12. Anyone caught speeding will be ticketed, authorities said.

While Pierce Ferry Road is paved, nine miles of the 21-mile Diamond Bar Road isn’t. The old ranch road twists around Joshua trees, dips into a local wash and ends up on the Hualapai reservation, about 90 miles west of Grand Canyon National Park.

Efforts to complete the paving project have been delayed by legal action and a lack of funding. Tribal engineer Erin Forrest said officials are anywhere between $10 million and $20 million short of what’s needed to finish.

If they find the money, Forrest said the project could be completed by mid-2012, allowing a smoother and safer ride for visitors and workers headed to the reservation. For now, Mohave County maintains the unpaved, gravel section using a motor grader and water truck.

Public safety was one of the issues brought up in the environmental impact statement before the Skywalk opened in 2007, but Forrest said it didn’t outline problems with having the road only partially paved.