In a unanimous vote last week, Flathead County commissioners ended a partnership with Glacier National Park that provided a free shuttle system to some of the most congested areas of our region’s largest tourism draw.
In prepared statements, both the commission and National Park Service left open the possibility of either finding another solution or striking a new deal.
“We hope the Park will work with us to resolve our concerns and, moving forward, commit to an integrated transit system that would truly benefit all parties,” said Commissioner Randy Brodehl.
For his part, Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow said, “Learning about the challenges our partner faced made us realize that we need to explore new models for our transit-system operations. The cancellation of the agreement provides us with an opportunity to develop the next generation of the system.”
What I think everyone can agree on is that eliminating or reducing the shuttle system, which saw its ridership increase from 138,000 in 2012 to 255,000 in 2019, would be devastating for the park. Glacier has already begun crafting a long-term management plan for the Sun Road that includes a proposal to expand the shuttle system. Meanwhile, the park drew more than 3 million visitors this year for just the second time in its history.
The county cited a number of factors for terminating the agreement: Limited funding has prevented Eagle Transit from upgrading its aging fleet; an overcrowded shuttle system has resulted in passengers waiting for hours at congested stops; and the “lack of benefit to Flathead communities.”
While the first two of the abovementioned points have merit, the third falls flat. The county can make a solid argument that the agreement is too expensive to maintain and its outdated and overcrowded vehicles are unsafe. But saying it has not benefitted the area because it has failed, in the county’s words, to “mitigate some of the negative effects of high-volume visitorship associated with proximity to the park, such as traffic and parking congestion, air pollution and infrastructure damage,” is subjective at best. After all, it does not take into account what the park would look like without a shuttle system amid exploding popularity.
I would reckon not very good. For example, when hiking, the system allows you to bring one car to the park instead of two. Many of the trails along the Sun Road that begin at a certain point of the corridor end several miles up the road. Shuttles then ferry you back to your original destination. Yes, they can be crowded and you often have to wait, but it’s worth it.
The alternative to the shuttles is an even worse traffic jam in Glacier during the height of summer. That means a worse experience for tourists visiting the area. And that means some of those tourists might not come here and spend money and support the numerous businesses in the gateway communities surrounding the park that rely on them to survive.
The park is at the point where it needs more public transportation, not less. And I hope this is an “opportunity,” as Mow said, to create a shuttle system that is at once efficient and safe. But ending it altogether benefits no one; not the visitors nor the residents who call Flathead County home.
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