Summer in Glacier National Park brings a three-month season of so much activity that it would put a beehive to shame. More people are venturing into the park to experience the beauty and wonder nature provides, and while increased visitors means more exposure for the park and surrounding businesses, it also puts strain on Glacier’s existing transportation infrastructure.
The future of transportation in Glacier Park is a major issue currently being addressed in the Going-to-the-Sun Road Corridor Management Plan, a document that is not yet finalized.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road, which cuts a jaw-dropping, 50-mile line through the park, is more popular than ever, park spokesperson Denise Germann said, leading to congestion, crowding and adverse effects on the natural surroundings, like more frequent run-ins with wildlife or wildlife displacement.
One of the most popular forms of transportation in the park is the relatively new, free shuttle service that runs along the Sun Road. The park implemented the shuttles in 2007 in a partnership with Flathead County’s Eagle Transit when the major 10-year rehabilitation project on the Going-to-the-Sun began as a way to help reduce congestion.
But while most of the construction rehabilitation work is done – the west side of the road doesn’t have any scheduled construction this summer – the road remains congested.
“Overall, what we’re seeing are more people in that corridor, our shuttle keeps increasing ridership,” Germann said.
In 2007, about 132,000 people rode the shuttles, and in 2010, the park’s centennial year, that number shot up to 170,000. Last summer, about 151,000 people took the shuttles.
Riding the shuttles is free, and the service is paid for through a $7.50 charge on each park entrance fee for vehicles.
The shuttle bus fleet, consisting of eight large Optima models and 27 smaller Sprinter models, takes cars off the road and reduces emissions in the park, but maintaining it is costly, running at about $800,000 per year.
“Our shuttle system is very popular, and one of the things we’re looking at with the corridor management plan is how do we manage shuttle use along with the mandate to take care of the resources,” Germann said.
Whether the park keeps the shuttle system after construction on the Going-to-the-Sun is finished, which is expected to be 2017, will be one of the decisions made through the corridor plan, she said.
Dale Novak, part of Glacier Park shuttle operations for Eagle Transit, said the Sprinter buses on the fleet usually have a 10-year expected lifetime, and while the Glacier buses don’t log as many miles as other buses might, the miles they do run are strenuous.
The oldest of the Sprinters are from 2006 and will likely need to be refurbished or replaced in a couple years, Novak said. The park is working on getting grants to replace the fleet, and keeps updating the buses little by little.
“We spend a lot of money in the off season repairing and getting everything ready,” Novak said.
Replacing the entire fleet would cost between $4 million and $6 million.
Novak expects ridership on the shuttles to increase this year, now that the transit center in Apgar is also the site of the upgraded visitors center. He believes the county and Eagle Transit have a solid working relationship with the park, and hopes it continues.
“It’ll be interesting to see if they decide to keep with it,” Novak said. “I really think it’s a benefit because of how many cars we take off that road.”
According to the corridor plan study, the shuttle system reduced vehicles on Going-to-the-Sun Road by about 15 to 20 percent during the busiest times of day.
This year, shuttle service runs from July 1 to Sept. 7, adding a few days compared to last year. There will also be three Glacier Express morning shuttles taking visitors directly to Logan Pass each morning, running between 7 a.m. and 7:45 a.m., without stopping along the way.
There has already been one round of public comment on the proposed corridor study, and the park is currently identifying alternatives, Germann said. Public comment on any proposed alternatives will be in the fall.
Other popular forms of transportation in the park include the historic Red Bus tours, and Sun Tours, which focus on the Blackfeet tribe’s history and cultural connection with Glacier Park.
Outside the park, the businesses on U.S. Highway 2 near Glacier hope to get involved with either the existing transportation services or start some of their own.
Teresa Woehler, an administrator for the Gateway to Glacier business group and co-owner of the Historic Tamarack Lodge in Coram, said multiple businesses in Badrock Canyon want to meet with park administration and the private concessioners who run the tour buses to see if bus stops at local businesses are possible.
Similar attempts in the past have failed, Woehler said, but the business group intends to keep trying or figure out their own solution to getting more people into the park with fewer vehicles.
“There’s obviously a need for it,” Woehler said. “I’m interested in working with the Gateway group, possibly starting up a shuttle service using grant money. Our guests could travel in and out of the park without taking their own vehicles and it (would) reduce the amount of traffic on the roads.”
Having more people at the park is a boon for local businesses, Woehler said, but there’s no desire for more congestion or to negatively impact the park that brings all the business in the first place.
“It’s just a matter of having these services and having these infrastructures in place,” she said.
For more information on the Going-to-the-Sun Road Corridor Management Plan, visit www.parkplanning.nps.gov/glac.
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