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The National Park or Parking System?

As increasing numbers of visitors vie for limited parking spaces, the Park Service is looking at a variety of methods to get people to leave their cars at the gate. Shuttle systems are taking cars off park roads and reducing noise and air pollution at a number of parks.

THE KIDS ARE SQUIRMING, your spouse is fuming, the car is overheating, and so are you when you finally spot a parking place after half an hour of searching, only to have it snatched away. Maybe you would expect this at a shopping mall the week before Christmas. But this is vacation, and you are just one of millions of people whose trip to a national park on a summer weekend is more like a trip to a national parking lot.

Transportation in and around some of our national parks has become unpleasant enough that several have implemented alternative ways of moving people around, and many more are making plans to do so. Park visitation has grown 40 percent since 1980, and the transportation problem grows daily more pressing.

"It can't be a lot of fun when you go to the Grand Canyon and spend all your time looking for a parking space and that tends to be the sum total of the experience," says Laura Loomis, director of the visitor experience program for NPCA. "There is no other way to deal with the issue than to get people out of their cars and into more concentrated, denser transportation modes."

Although convincing Americans to leave their cars behind is difficult, the real challenge facing parks is money. Transportation systems--whether they consist of shuttle buses or light rail trams--are expensive. They involve huge capital outlays, followed by annual maintenance and operating costs. In some cases, this means parks must strike up partnerships with gateway communities, state governments, and park advocacy groups to help finance what may be one of the most important challenges facing them over the next decade.

While the Park Service receives some funds for its transportation systems, it's not enough to cover the full cost. Nearly all of the $165 million the agency receives each year from the Transportation Enhancement Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) is spent repairing existing roads. Only $8.5 million--about 5 percent--is earmarked for alternative systems, says Lou De Lorme, the NPS team leader for transportation and facilities.

And just because a park has an alternative transportation need does not mean it automatically gets a portion of that $8.5 million. Each park must compete for the money annually. In the most recent call for projects--from 2001 to 2003--De Lorme says he limited each region to 20 projects and restricted them to vehicular and water-based proposals; no funds were available for maintenance, operations, replacement of vehicles, or other transportation modes such as bike trails. Even so, every region put forth 20 proposals, and it took De Lorme's staff two days just to get through the construction projects. Half of the proposals were to study and plan transportation systems.

Fortunately, help may be on the way. A study authorized by TEA-21 will focus on the transportation needs of the Park Service for the next 20 years. And some additional money may be available as a result of a bill proposed by Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) that would provide $60 million over the next five years to develop mass transportation systems in the parks and on other public lands.

A few parks already have launched systems such as the pilot project at Yosemite National Park in California, begun last summer by the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS). The plan had been in the works since 1992.

The YARTS system is a cooperative effort among Mariposa, Merced, and Mono counties, the Park Service, the California Department of Transportation, the Forest Service, and the U.S. Department of Transportation to encourage many of Yosemite's 3.5 million annual visitors to leave their cars in gateway communities and ride shuttle buses into the park.

Last year's two-year demonstration project was successful enough that early this year, the YARTS board voted to jump right into a five-year project, says Jess Brown, executive director of YARTS.

Ridership was 18,500 from May to mid-September, and Brown estimated another 12,000 trips through winter: "According to our figures, on a daily basis it's 110 fewer cars going into the park." Many of those riding the shuttle are Park Service and concession employees (who rode for free), a key element to making the system work, says Chip Jenkins, Yosemite's chief of strategic planning. "Parking in Yosemite Valley is essentially a free-for-all. If we can take employees' cars out of circulation, that frees up more spaces for visitors."

During its first season, the shuttle service--which is operated by a contractor--used eight diesel buses. Riders paid between $7 and $15, which included the entrance fee for those riding YARTS buses. The only capital costs this year were about $750,000 from the state to build bus stops, Brown says. Other operational costs were borne by Mariposa and Merced counties, the Park Service, and the state. For this year, Brown expects the same level of contributions, including $600,000 in TEA-21 money to be used over two and a half years to pay for marketing and concession costs.

As with the other parks, funding long-term operating costs will make or break the system, Jenkins says. But so far, it's not only helping to manage the usual visitor flow but increasing accessibility. "We saw people who might not otherwise have visited, people who did not have cars, younger people, and foreign visitors," he says.

Since 1970 Yosemite has operated a free shuttle within the park that stops at 23 locations in the valley. NPS is leasing 12 fuel-efficient shuttles until alternative fuel buses are bought. The Park Service plans to use some fees from entrance stations and campgrounds along with congressionally appropriated money to buy the buses.

Forty-nine NPS units operate 62 alternative transportation systems, and at least one has been operating for nearly 30 years. The first visitors who traveled to Denali National Park in Alaska, established in 1917, were allowed to drive the narrow, rustic park road. But as visitation increased, park officials faced a choice: widen the road or use a different method of getting tourists into the park. Denali's bus transportation system began in 1972, and all visitors must take the bus, a bicycle, or walk beyond mile 14. For most of the parks in the lower 48, however, shuttle systems are relatively new.

One of the more successful new systems operates at Zion National Park in Utah, which began a mandatory summertime shuttle in May 2000.

"There were 400 parking spaces in the canyon, and on July Fourth it could hit close to 5,000 cars going in," says Dave Karaszewski, the park's special projects manager.

With the new shuttle system, visitors park at lots, motels, and campgrounds in nearby Springdale, Utah, and can then travel anywhere around town and throughout the park without ever getting in their cars again. One loop runs through the town and, at the park's visitor center, connects to a second loop that runs visitors into the canyon. The town loop is free, and the cost of the canyon loop is incorporated into the entrance fee, which went from $10 to $20 per family group. The 29 propane-fueled buses carry 31 passengers, some towing 35-seat trailers, from April 1 through October 31. During winter, visitors can park inside the canyon at the existing parking areas, but during the summer months, only certain tour buses and people staying at Zion Lodge can drive into the park.

The system cost $28.1 million, although that includes a new visitor center, a bus maintenance facility, conversion of the old visitor center to a museum, 29 buses and 19 trailers, development of a trail along the Virgin River that is accessible to disabled visitors, and the reconfiguration of some roads, parking lots, and campgrounds. Construction costs made up more than $19.6 million. The money came from a variety of places. Springdale received $923,000 from ISTEA (the Intermodal Surface Transportation Enhancement Act, TEA-21's predecessor) to build shuttle stops in town, and the park received $2.4 million from TEA-21 for two more buses, as well as some traffic design changes and shuttle stops in the upper canyon. The park's fee demonstration program provided $3.9 million. In addition, groups such as the Zion National History Association donated $50,000 to the Springdale shuttle stops. Zion Canyon Theater came up with $1.6 million to develop a physical pedestrian connection to the park. Springdale was so supportive of the system--helping the park develop it and providing shuttle stops--that NPCA awarded the mayor, the town council, businesses, and citizens of Springdale its first National Parks Achievement Award, which recognizes outstanding efforts to protect parks.

During its first season, the shuttle eliminated about 2,500 vehicles per day from the main canyon--equal to 4.5 million miles not driven over this 12-mile stretch. Visitors reported seeing more wildlife. More people bike into and around the park, and Karaszewski says the reduction in noise is noticeable.

But the system has had some negative effects as well. The buses are heavy and hard on the roads. Unloading 60 people at once at a shuttle stop can overwhelm an area. And whether the increased entrance fees will be able to cover all the operations and maintenance is not clear. Karaszewski says, "We're watching that really closely."

Still, Zion is better off in that regard than other parks. Most systems are voluntary, and most park managers believe that charging a fee will discourage riders. So finding ways to pay for the systems' operations and maintenance takes creativity, work, and cajoling.

In Maine, Acadia National Park has teamed up with local advocacy groups, communities, business owners, and the state to develop and operate the Island Explorer shuttle service from June 23 through Labor Day. The free service carries visitors on 17 propane-powered buses over six routes from Bar Harbor throughout the park and on Mount Desert Island. As with Zion, the goal was to reduce traffic congestion and parking problems and to improve air quality, says Len Bobinchock, deputy superintendent. With adequate parking at campgrounds and motels on Mount Desert Island but too little parking in the towns and park, the system encourages overnight visitors to leave their cars at their lodgings and catch a ride on a shuttle.

In 1999, its first year, the system carried 142,260 passengers--about 1,872 per day. That number jumped last year to 193,057 passengers, averaging 2,600 a day. The park estimates that, in 1999 and 2000, the shuttle eliminated 100, 595 vehicles from park and local roads. And Maine Department of Environmental Protection officials estimate that, in 1999 alone, the shuttle cut about 1.3 million vehicle miles driven, eliminating two tons of nitrous oxide, four tons of hydrocarbons, 32 tons of carbon monoxide, and 522 tons of carbon dioxide.

Based on onboard surveys, the shuttle is a hit--more than 90 percent of passengers said it made their visit better, they wanted more buses, and the service should remain free.

Bobinchock says that, as of early 2001, the system's capital costs totaled nearly $2.6 million, which included the buses, improving stops, creating a new hub in Bar Harbor, and rebuilding some parking lots. Park Service fee money paid $73,000, the Federal Lands Highway Program provided $1.7 million, Maine's Department of Transportation (DOT) contributed $684,000, Friends of Acadia came up with $40,000, and the NPS's cost-share program provided $32,000. All the towns within the system (Bar Harbor, Mount Desert, Southwest Harbor, and Tremont) also contributed.

The system's operating costs have been $728,000 over two seasons, paid for by contributions from park fees, Maine DOT, Friends of Acadia, Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Tremont, the League of Towns, private campgrounds, motels, and the Chamber of Commerce. Bobinchock expects NPS operating costs to hit about $200,000 this year, and the big question is how the park will meet those expenses.

One option might be a local tax on motel rooms or restaurants dedicated to the transit system. Another possibility is a line item in the federal Transit Administration budget to support alternative transportation in national parks, similar to existing categories for urban and rural transit. Fundamentally, Bobinchock says, the parks can't rely on one source; they must diversify. De Lorme and other park managers agree. "The federal Transit Administration has said there are no transportation systems that are not subsidized," De Lorme says. "We think these systems will grow because people will take money from various sources to make them successful."

Even city systems are subsidized. For instance, transit systems in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia receive about 50 percent of their revenue from federal, state, and local governments.

At Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts, it took a season of operating a small shuttle with some old buses to convince local citizens, local government, and even some skeptical staff that they should pitch in. "Now they're all on board," says Ben Pearson, the park's chief of maintenance. "Now the other towns are saying, `Hey, help us, we want it too.'"

The shuttle cost $1 for adults and 50 cents for kids, and nearly 53,400 people rode from June 24 to September 4. The park hasn't determined how many cars the system took off the roads, but it was popular enough that this year the park is getting five new propane-fueled buses and studying a system that would include the outer Cape and provide a link to ferries that carry visitors to Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.

Most communities are open to the idea of a local transit system, town officials say--it can only help residents. The hard part is the cost. "We have to convince the community at large that this is a benefit to them, and that's the rub," says Dana Reed, Bar Harbor's town manager.

WENDY MITMAN CLARKE is a regular contributor to National Parks.
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:National Parks
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2001
Previous Article:GOING NATIVE.

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