Mules, Helicopters and Potential Aerial Tram Make up Tribe’s Multimodal Transportation System

Photo looking down on Grand Canyon southern rim Havasupai area
The view looking down the line of the proposed solid waste hauling tramway into Ash Canyon and the Village of Supai.

In a 3,000-foot-deep canyon, on the western edge of the Grand Canyon’s south rim, live the Havasupai Indians. Their home, in the Village of Supai, is considered the most remote community in the lower 48.

They also have one of the most unique “multimodal” transportation systems you’ll find. With no cars in their community, foot travel, horses, pack mules and helicopters are what transport people, goods….and solid waste.

It’s this last item, solid waste, that first had the Tribe considering adding an aerial tram to their transportation mix. The Tribe’s current method for handling waste is problematic. It’s stored and sorted on the canyon floor, a fragile environment that is subject to flash floods, before being hauled out by mule or helicopter.

Photo of waste collection area at Supai
Current solid waste collection area on canyon floor.

So the Tribe reached out to Engineering Specialties Group (ESG) to evaluate if a cable system might be a viable option for getting their solid waste out of the canyon.

ESG, a division of SCJ Alliance, conducted a Solid Waste Cable Network Study to assess solid waste disposal needs, cable system alternatives, location options and visual impacts, among other things.

“The study considered the feasibility of using a cable system for transporting more than waste – tribal members, needed materials and supplies, and visitors,” said ESG’s Jim Fletcher, the study’s project manager.

The Havasupai Tribe and its individual members are largely dependent on tourism for revenue, with over 20,000 people visiting annually to experience the Havasupai’s location, culture and arts.

The project evolved from one focused on getting rid of waste, to a transportation solution to meet a variety of Havasupai needs.

Photo of Jim and Jamie on horseback at Supai
ESG engineer’s Jamie Bunch (left) and Jim Fletcher after traversing 2,000 vertical feet of canyon wall switchbacks to get to Supai Village.

In addition to moving people and waste, the Tribe also imports water, building materials, household goods and furniture, animal feed and bedding, office products, construction equipment, and more.

The study identified the best tram design and carrying capacity for efficient and cost effective transport of not only the waste, but other items.

The study supported ongoing operation and maintenance costs of a new tribal owned ropeway system, being offset by the current costs associated with removal of solid waste and tribal costs to import goods, as well as potential revenue from transporting people and materials.

The suggested system also reduces environmental hazards in the village and improves employee safety and health.

Photo of tourists and mules at Supai
Tourists in Supai.

Next steps to develop the cable system include detailed system planning, developing a plan for upgrading needed roads and exploring financing options.

Some of these considerations will be addressed through the Arizona Department of Transportation’s upcoming long range transportation plan update. Of note, the plan includes cable systems in its multimodal considerations, providing evidence that aerial trams are becoming more main stream as transit options.

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