Parks without cars: A new transportation plan for Grand Canyon National Park

A combination of light rail and alternative fuel buses has been selected as the future transit system to and within the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, announced park superintendent Robert Arnberger. The plan reflects a larger initiative to cope with ever-increasing crowds at national parks in the West.

In Grand Canyon National Park, All day-use visitors to the South Rim will park their cars in the gateway community of Tusayan and board a light rail car for the six-mile ride to the Mather Point Transit Center. Light-rail trains will serve this route year-round, at regular intervals, with a train scheduled to depart about every five minutes during the peak season. Light rail will follow a “Y” shaped route into the park from Tusayan with a primary destination of Mather Point. From Mather Point light rail will provide transit service to Maswik Transportation Center and back to Tusayan.

Complementing the light rail system, a fleet of alternative fuel buses will provide visitor transportation needs in those areas of the Grand Canyon Village that are not served directly by the light-rail system, including West Rim areas, Yavapai Observation Station, Yaki Point and the South Kaibab trail head. The buses, likely powered by electricity or natural gas, offer a clean and quiet alternative to conventional fueled buses. Buses will also run year-round at regular intervals, in most cases every 20 minutes or less, depending on the season.

“Selection of these transit modes is a milestone in achieving our vision for efficient innovative park transportation in the 21st century,” said Arnberger. “With this system in place, the experience of park visitors will improve greatly from the congested auto-based experience of today.”

Due to the efficiency and high-capacity of light rail transit systems, the need for tour-bus parking at Mather Point was eliminated. Tour-bus passengers will also change over to the light rail system in Tusayan in order to visit Mather Point and all points to the west. Transportation buses providing point-to-point visitor transportation services will use the Maswik Transportation Center for pick-up and drop-off.

Visitors with overnight lodging, camping or recreational vehicle reservations will be able to drive to a designated parking area for their accommodation. Once at their destination, they will travel within the park on the transit system.

The Mather Point Transit Center will be integral to the shift from automobiles to mass transit.

This facility will be the primary hub for transit to and within the park and will accommodate up to 4,000 people per hour. Here visitors will be offered a menu of activities with which to plan their visit to park then board alternate transportation to access those activities.

The National Park Service intends to develop and operate the light-rail and bus components of the transit system through a concession contract. The contractor will receive a portion of the entrance fee on a per-visitor basis.

The transit system will be implemented in phases. Expansion of the existing shuttle bus system is underway and will continue through the next several years. Completion of the Mather Transit Center, the cornerstone of the park’s General Management Plan, and the transportation hub, is expected to be completed by the fall of 2000. The transit system will be in place shortly thereafter.

“Grand Canyon is the second-most visited national park in the system, with nearly 5 million visitors each year, most arriving by car,” said Arnberger. “During the busy summer months an average of 6,000 cars will enter the park at the South Rim, all vying for a limited number of parking spaces. It is because of this, visitor experience has been eroding for years. The park’s 1995 General Management Plan was developed as a result of increased visitation and the damage and congestion caused by private vehicles. With a new transportation system, visitors will find it easier to get into and around the park with more time to enjoy the park.”

The National Park Service plans on using a variety of funding sources to carry out the transportation plan, including the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program funds, the Grand Canyon Association, concessions contract(s), the Federal Lands Highway Program, and philanthropic donation to the Grand Canyon Fund.

The goal of the National Park Service is to preserve the Grand Canyon for future generations and to provide a visitor experience that will last a lifetime. The transit system is consistent with other management decisions being made to protect Grand Canyon resources. While much is being done to reduce noise from aircraft and boat motors, this plan strives to solve transportation issues while also restoring, to the greatest extent possible, natural sounds of the canyon by reducing private vehicles and using alternative-fuel transit.

In a separate announcement, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Transportation signed a Memorandum of Understanding to address transportation issues in national parks. In addition to the Grand Canyon plan, the agencies will work toward easing congestion in Zion National Park and Yosemite National Park.

Zion National Park will provide shuttle bus service from nearby hotels and campgrounds to the visitor center, and then a shuttle bus with many drop-off points along the narrow canyon’s only paved road.

Yosemite recently released its draft plan that proposes integrating an in-valley shuttle system with a regional transportation system established by the gateway communities. The east end of Yosemite Valley will be significantly restored to its natural condition, removing unnecessary roadways and buildings and reducing traffic congestion. The park will benefit in the implementation of its plan from special Congressional disaster relief as a result of last winter’s catastrophic flooding.

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