Glacier National Park officials are seeking a shuttle service operator after Flathead County ended a 12-year partnership with the park late last year. However, park officials say they are confident the free shuttles along the Going-to-the-Sun Road will resume this summer.
In December, the Flathead County Commission scuttled an agreement in place since 2007 that provided free shuttle service in the park, which has become critical along the Sun Road as visitation continues to skyrocket, resulting in gridlock. The service was funded by the park and operated by Flathead County’s public transit provider, Eagle Transit, part of the Agency on Aging. However, as ridership increased on the service, the county was beginning to incur more costs, which ultimately played into the commission’s decision to end the partnership.
More than 138,000 people used the free shuttles in 2012, but by 2019 that figure had climbed to 255,000 riders.
“Since 2007 Flathead County has partnered in good faith with Glacier National Park to provide a valuable service that helps the Park manage visitor flow and helps visitors enjoy their experience in the Park, but the system as it stands is broken and county taxpayers have paid a high cost for little benefit to our communities,” Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl wrote in a statement in December.
At the time, the commissioner said he hoped the park and county could come together to resolve their issues. But earlier this month, it appeared that would not happen when the park put out a contract for bid to operate the buses — which are owned by the National Park Service (NPS) — in 2020. Prior to putting the contract out, the NPS solicited a sources sought notice to ensure there was interest in the opportunity, and Glacier Park spokesperson Gina Kerzman said officials are confident that companies will step forward.
Kerzman said the eventual operator would likely need to provide two managers, four dispatchers and 35 drivers. Glacier National Park owns a total of 36 buses, including 25 buses with 14 seats apiece, eight 29-seat buses, two 23-seat buses and one 15-seat bus.
“I don’t think visitors will notice a difference in the level of service with a new operator,” Kerzman said.
In fact, the NPS is hoping the new operator will be able to expand service, particularly on the east side of the Sun Road. In years past, there has been an express service from Apgar to Logan Pass first thing in the morning to serve hikers trying to get into the alpine section of the park without their car. Kerzman said the park would like to offer the same type of express service on the east side. Park officials would also like to add a transfer spot at Sun Point on the east side similar to one at Avalanche that will enable quicker turnarounds and better service.
“We want both east and west side services to be the same,” Kerzman said.
While the park is looking to improve its shuttle service, it is also finalizing its long-awaited Sun Road corridor plan. The plan was released last year and offered suggestions on how to better handle skyrocketing visitation in the park — more than 3 million visitors annually — much of which impacts the main highway through the park. Kerzman said park officials are currently reviewing comments from the public about the plan and will be including them in an addendum.