Zion National Park’s shuttles are old, but there’s no money to replace them

St. George • Every day, packed shuttles chug through Zion National Park carrying thousands of hikers, bikers, tourists and locals into the country’s third most visited National Park.

The nearly 40 buses they have on hand have carried passengers since 2000, and haven’t been replaced since, much to the dismay of visitors and park officials alike, The Spectrum newspaper reports.

Between the upkeep and many repairs, 79% of all park entrance fees go toward just keeping the shuttles running, totaling to about $5 million a year. Though, new estimates suggest that number is nearing closer to 65%.

These buses are not even manufactured anymore, forcing the rangers to cannibalize broken down buses for parts, or even buy them off of eBay.

Not to mention the noise and emissions caused by running that many propane buses up and down a scenic, serene canyon, which disturbs wildlife.

Zion is not ignorant of these problems. They’ve been desperately trying to secure federal funding to replace the shuttles since 2017.

But Zion has been repeatedly denied this urgent funding by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and Zion’s partners don’t know why.

The replacement project even has letters of support from Governor Gary Herbert, former Senator Orrin Hatch, Senator Mike Lee, and Representative Chris Stewart called it a “top priority” for the region.

Advocacy organizations continue to be perplexed on why this funding hasn’t been awarded.

“This is such a high priority and such a need, why isn’t it being addressed? Why isn’t it one of the priority projects that get picked?” Emily Douce, Director of Operations and Park Funding for the National Parks Conservation Association said. “It’s just a disaster waiting to happen. People are not going to be happy when they aren’t running.”

When Zion started using the shuttle service in 2000, they never were supposed to last this long.

The buses, manufactured and run by French-owned company RaptDev, are only supposed to drive for 15,000 hours in their lifetime.

The Zion shuttles have run well over double that.

For the popular park, who saw 4.5 million visitors in 2019, they have no choice but to run these buses to the ground. Zion says they move around 6.6 million people annually, including those in the gateway town of Springdale.

In 2000, the shuttles were a pioneering effort of collaboration between the National Park and Springdale. It was an answer to the problems then of noise in the canyon, over-parking and limited visitation.

But now, this fix seems temporary as the shuttles threaten to break down sooner rather than later.

As has been seen with the coronavirus pandemic, the shuttles are essential to getting people into and around Zion. When they were closed as a safety precaution, hundreds of cars lined up around midnight the night before just to potentially have the chance to go up the canyon.

“What the Park Service does really well is they create an excellent visitor experience, but in doing that they mask the issues underneath. As long as they’re running, everything is OK, but they are going to stop running. We are going to be scrambling,” Cory MacNulty, Southwest Region Associate Director of the National Parks Conservation Association said. “If we lose the shuttle we lose the whole way that people experience Zion Canyon.”

There are 39 “power engines,” or a bus with the engine, and 23 trailers, cars that attach to the power engines for extra capacity.

To replace them all, it’s going to take $47 million, plus $1.5 million for charging stations and up to 14 years.

(K. Sophie Will | The Spectrum via AP) A tourist shuttle bus is seen in Zion National Park, Utah, on Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Now two decades old, the buses are falling apart but there is no money to replace them.
(K. Sophie Will | The Spectrum via AP) A tourist shuttle bus is seen in Zion National Park, Utah, on Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Now two decades old, the buses are falling apart but there is no money to replace them.

In 2015, park officials started looking into replacing the shuttles, including doing studies to find the best options. After three years of study, the park, with $250,000 from Utah Clean Cities, bought two 35 foot Proterra battery-electric buses for trial.

This year, the National Park Service Washington Office approved the replacement of the whole fleet with battery-electric buses in order to cut emissions, become more cost-efficient and get in on the ground floor of an advancing technology quickly gaining market share.

The only problem? The money.

In 2017, the Utah Department of Transportation, on behalf of the park, submitted an application to the Federal Department of Transportation’s Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grants program, (formerly known as TIGER,) for an award of $25 million, about half of what they need to fund the project.

Even with Washington County pledging a $100,000 match fund and the Zion Forever Foundation pledging a $300,000 match, the answer was no.

Again in 2018, UDOT submitted another application for the $25 million, but it was denied once more.

Last year, the park tried a different approach and applied for $35 million from the Federal Highway Administration’s Nationally Significant Federal Lands and Tribal Projects Program, which was again unsuccessful.

The BUILD grant is now advertised as $1 billion for “planning and capital investments in surface transportation infrastructure and are to be awarded on a competitive basis for projects that will have a significant local or regional impact.”

A U.S. DOT spokesperson said the grant program had a limited amount of funding in 2017 and 2018, and is highly competitive with about one out of every 10 project applicants awarded funds.

“The BUILD program enables DOT to examine these projects on their merits to help ensure that taxpayers are getting the highest value for every dollar invested,” they said.

They explained that BUILD applications are evaluated on criteria that include safety, economic competitiveness, quality of life, environmental sustainability, state of good repair, innovation, cost-benefit analysis, project readiness and partnership.

While this is all true, advocates are still frustrated at the lack of explanation of exactly why the applications were denied while there is so desperate a need.

“They had all the right pieces in place,” MacNulty with the NPCA said. “They’re piecing it together with bandaids and a whole lot of skill. Someday in the not-so-distant future, the system is going to fail. What has happened and continues to happen during COVID-19 really should be an eyeopener for us, just about how critical it is.”

The park is operating buses at limited capacity to ensure social distancing but is still moving thousands of people through the canyon every day.

Jack Burns, Chief of Commercial Services and Partnerships at Zion, said there’s a lot of need out there and they will be patiently persistent.

“While we feel that our needs are a priority, I think in the bigger spectrum, we need to recognize how great the needs are and we are just one of many,” he said. “I have full confidence that if there’s a financial ability to support us, they’ll try to do so.”

Even with the recent passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which could bring $220 million to Utah national parks and monuments, will most likely not cover the cost of replacing the shuttles.

Zion National Park alone has around $70 million in deferred maintenance without the shuttle cost. And technically, replacing the shuttles does not count as deferred maintenance, the NPCA said.

UDOT, while aware of the need like Burns, also do not know why these applications have been denied. They continue to push for ways to solve the shuttle problem.

“The transportation system is part of the experience of the park. Something to be enjoyed, not just as a means to an end,” Jeff Sanders, UDOT Regional Transportation Planner said. “If Zion can get shuttles at all, how come other national parks with integrated systems outside the park cannot? We’re just frustrated.”

The Federal Highway Administration did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Read the 2017 BUILD application, the 2018 BUILD application and the 2019 NSFLTP application with appendices. Also, read Zion Forever’s proposal for new shuttles here.

This year, pending the application call, Zion will reapply to the FHA’s grant, asking for nearly the full $45 million including match funding.

While the park and UDOT will continue to apply, other ways to travel in, out and around Springdale have been emerging over the past few years.

Washington County has been making progress on an electric

Kane County, in partnership with Utah Clean Cities, is moving forward with plans to bring more tourism to the remote east side Zion and connecting it to Kanab with state-of-the-art electric shuttles.

Mt. Carmel Tunnel, the historic pass which is often a bottleneck because of oversized vehicles, is in desperate need of new transportation solutions. With 33,000 vehicle escorts through the tunnel in 2019, Utah Clean Cities is hoping to also alleviate traffic with their shuttle proposals.

There are even studies and conversations happening about utilizing already laid rail track from Salt Lake City to Moab to increase transportation to the east side of the state.

Vicki Varela, Managing Director of the Utah Office of Tourism, said all this cooperation to solve a huge problem in the southern part of the state is the “the most inspiring national parks project in the country right now.”

But to get to the regional shuttle system dream so many want to be realized, they have to first confront the problems of rural, remote, tourist country.

K. Sophie Will is the National Parks Reporter for The Spectrum & Daily News through Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

A St. George-to-Zion shuttle could be key to unlocking So. Utah public transportation

Editor’s Note: This is the third story in a three part series about regional transportation in southern Utah for citizens and tourists alike. 

What if you could fly into St. George Regional Airport and get on a public shuttle bus that could take you straight to Zion National Park, along the way stopping at key gateway communities and rural treasures?

Well, plans are already underway for just that.

Washington and Kane counties are currently pushing ahead with projects putting electric vehicles between St. George, Springdale and Kanab, in order to encourage more efficient and eco-friendly tourism, as well as to bring public transportation to remote areas, boosting local economies and overall equity.

It’s all kinds of complicated, with many jurisdictions and agencies pitching in to make it all happen.

But in the end, lawmakers and activists are hoping this regional shuttle system can connect secluded southern Utah on an unprecedented level, and are this can be the blueprint to expand the system further to Las Vegas and the other four Utah National Parks.

A rough map of the potential regional shuttle systems being planned.

St. George to Springdale

The first leg starts in St. George, the hub of southern Utah, to Springdale, the gateway community of Zion National Park.

Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox and St. George City Mayor Jon Pike, along with other governments in the county, have been working closely together with Zion and Springdale to begin running electric shuttles within the next few years.

In 2018, the governments received $15 million of Recreation Hotspot funding from the Utah Legislature to implement a shuttle from St. George to Springdale.

That, plus $3 million from the Federal Highway Administration, comes with a catch — the governments must operate the buses for 10 years, should they take the money.

“The reason UDOT awarded this money for SR-9 is because they’ve been spending so much money on repairs because of cars,” Cox said. “Everybody’s laying the groundwork for this next century experience… we’re getting closer and closer to seeing it come to realization. “

A presentation made by AECOM to the Council of Governments shows they are planning to have four operating electric buses plus a spare to run the distance between St. George and Zion, with 10-minute layovers, 19 total stops, an express service, and more service during peak recreational season.

From end-to-end, round trip, the shuttle would take you 180 minutes on the local service and 150 minutes on the express. For context, it typically takes about 50 minutes, depending on traffic, to drive to Zion from St. George.

AECOM included plans for commuters as well as park visitors. They assume 25% of Zion’s south entrance visitors will come from St. George, estimating somewhere between 60,000 and 110,000 riders will use the shuttle annually.

Buses can charge at the depot overnight and have a quick charge during the layover at Zion.

Mayor Pike and AECOM flagged SunTran, St. George’s local public bus system, as a good example of the type of service they hope to provide and are heavily considering using SunTran to run the St. George to Springdale line anyway.

Using other examples of systems like this around the country, a potential one-way base fare would be around $8 per person, or $0.18 per mile.

For comparison, the same ride on the commercial popular shuttle line St. George Shuttle would cost about $70 one way.

Shuttles carried festivalgoers to their cars during Swiss Days in Santa Clara on Sept. 22, 2018.

The Zions Public Finance feasibility study ran four scenarios, which included some fare reductions and increases, and found the best use of funding would be to use electric buses operated by SunTran.

These studies show a 15-year model instead of 10, which is helpful for worried officials trying to make sure they can sustain this shuttle for a decade.

In a final effort to help make a decision on the project, the Five County Association of Governments conducted a feasibility study in December 2016 and found southern Utah not only wants a public transportation system but needs it.

They found a large number of people without cars live in and around St. George, and many under the poverty line live in Washington City and areas south of Rockville and Springdale. Many people with disabilities live in Hurricane and St. George.

They also found many major employers are along the proposed route, as well as essential services like hospitals.

This shuttle would stop in St. George, Washington, Hurricane, La Verkin and of course, Springdale. Connecting these rural hubs means access for underprivileged and privileged groups alike.

Surveyed people for the Five County's 2016 feasibility study showed many users would like the shuttle service to go to work or Zion National Park.

According to the Five County’s Study and survey, they found most people would be taking the shuttle to work or to Zion, confirming what lawmakers and advocates have seen for years.

Mayor Pike said that while this project is about tourism, it’s also about citizens.

“The idea, of course, is to make it more affordable for people, have fewer cars on the road, lessen need to widen roads and make it better for air quality,” he said. “For people, it could really be a benefit to them and their families to have a lower expense to get to work.”

While people have and can take commercial shuttles, they often cost so much the average commuter cannot afford them. Pike says this public transportation system is needed because “we can do it for less because we don’t have to make a profit.”

Washington County adopted a quarter-percent sales tax increase last year in an effort to fund transportation solutions. Of that, 0.05% will is for the county, 0.10% is for mass transit, including this shuttle project, and 0.10% is available for cities to solve the road and transportation issues they’re grappling with.

All in all, the Council of Governments is left with the decision of what to do next. They next meet on August 20.

Springdale to Kanab

Funding for these new shuttle systems amasses to millions.

On the east end of the park, another project is coming to fruition in order to solve the public transportation problem.

Advocacy organization Utah Clean Cities, in partnership with Kane County, is well underway with its mission of placing electric shuttles between Springdale and Kanab to increase visitation to Zion’s east end and decrease bottleneck traffic in the historic Mt. Carmel tunnel.

Mt. Carmel tunnel is notorious for long lines and mandating escorts for large vehicles, due to the size of the tunnel built in the 1920s. In 2019 alone, there were 33,000 vehicle escorts through the tunnel. This project hopes to clear a lot of the traffic by bringing visitors onto their shuttles, instead of sitting in their RVs and cars, waiting to get by.

“This is an opportunity to disperse visitors to the eastern side of the park,” Executive Director of Utah Clean Cities Tammie Bostick said. “How do you get people to slow down and go wow this is magnificent? I really want people to slow down and spend time here.”

Utah Clean Cities has received $780,000 from the Department of Energy for this project, which they say is matched with funds locally and in-kind.

The goal of the “East Zion National Park Electric Vehicle Shuttle System Project” or “EV Zion” is to demonstrate a small-scale, environmentally-sound shuttle system that is a blueprint planned to scale.

Roughed out long tunnel during supplemental construction- Zion Mt Carmel Highway.

They want to make the experience on shuttles more enjoyable than just getting from point A to point B, with plans for theater seating and sky roofs.

“Doesn’t the urban dweller get enough traffic congestion, tailpipe fumes, and impatient drivers in their usual routine?” Bostick said, describing these plans.

The project is currently underway testing the electric shuttles and studying the potential effects on the area. They expect to have electric shuttles on the east end roads within the next few years.

“The terrain and four extreme seasons of the Zion area are really one of the best testing grounds for this advanced technology.  This pilot will be able to demonstrate the battery electric vehicle can do even better than fossil fuels with high torque and regenerative braking,” Bostick said. “More importantly, it allows our parks to model leadership on the national park level, preserving our national treasures leading the way for our nation to solutions that create resiliency and sustainability.”

What about the other national parks?

Track laid between Salt Lake City and Moab is ripe for passenger trains.

With plans to connect St. George, Springdale and Kanab all underway, what about the rest of southern Utah?

Mark Preiss, Director of the Zion Forever Project, said they are excited about the strides being taken now and are looking forward to the possibility down the line of expanding the shuttle system.

“This is nothing but positive,” he said. “A new electric shuttle system and the exemplary level of partner commitment across jurisdictions can serve as a regional transit model for other parks across the country.”

Local leaders, such as Kane County Commissioner Brent Chamberlain, think this is a ripe opportunity, where southern Utah could be ” the only place in the country where someone could fly into the airport, hop on a shuttle go to three national parks.”

Checkerboard Mesa and the section of the East Rim Trail that leads back to the trailhead near the East Entrance to Zion National Park stretch out into the distance in the view from the top of the East Rim Trail April 29.

Utah Department of Transportation Regional Transportation Planner Jeff Sanders said they would definitely and support and encourage that type of mobility if it’s done right.

“There are big questions to answer when you establish the transit system like this, like who’s going to be governing and paying for the routes and costs in the future,” Sanders said. “Every problem is feasible it’s just how much time and money it would take to solve the problems.”

Kevin Lewis, Director of Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office, thinks in order to get people into the greater Zion area and decrease crowding, governments have to be proactive.

“At some point, we can’t draw lines in the sand and say that’s someone else’s jurisdiction, we need to create a visitor experience that’s really unique,” he said. “We have to be proactive in adapting to the circumstances that visitors are coming, we need to give them the best experience as we can, and keep it nice for the locals.”

He said UDOT is trying to consider more ways to connect places in Utah with airports to increase tourism and travel.

Another avenue UDOT and advocates are looking into is the already laid track from Salt Lake City to Moab that has the potential to become passenger rail. This would mean National Parks like Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef would be more easily accessed by tourists and locals alike.

A study done in May of this year showing there needs to be more local transportation upkeep in Moab and more research must be done, but it is a solution that is on UDOT’s minds.

The Salt Lake City to Moab and St. George to Zion transportation systems were discussed around the release of UDOT’s 2019 Statewide Rural Long-Range Transportation Plan, which shows what are UDOT’s priorities for increasing mobility in rural areas.

Kevin Lewis thinks a larger regional transportation system would be seamless for tourists and alleviate some stress off of hotspots for parking and car control.

“I think it’s pretty visionary, to be honest. We have a lot of international travelers — or we did,” he said, alluding to 2020’s dropoff in international travel because of COVID-19. As that type of travel resumes, the shuttle would make a lot of sense.

“I think that would be something like this would be really natural to them, where they can get out of the airport and get into the greater Zion,” he said.

While the plans are moving ahead slowly, but surely, there is hope southern Utah will become more cohesive as it grows with locals and tourists.

Vicki Varela, Managing Director of the Utah Office of Tourism, says this regional transportation system really shows how we can work together to try and create a new solution to an old problem.

“This is the most inspiring national parks project in the country right now,” she said. “This is a rare opportunity where the public and private sectors are coming together with this huge swath of land. In the heart of it is the Zion shuttle system, which between the aging shuttles and COVID-19 is at a crisis point.

“This is super important to resolve in a thoughtful way which will make a difference in establishing a sustainable tourism economy,” she added.

K. Sophie Will is the National Parks Reporter for The Spectrum & Daily News through the Report for America initiative by The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter at @ksophiewill or email her at kswill@thespectrum.com.

Is the lack of a public transportation system in southern Utah hurting citizens and tourism?

Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a three-part series about regional transportation in southern Utah for citizens and tourists alike. 

It’s no secret that living in southern Utah is expensive.

But what do you do when you can’t afford to live near your workplace, and there’s no public transportation to help you get there?

The lack of public transportation in southern Utah not only impedes equity among citizens, policymakers say, but also harms the vital and thriving tourism industry local towns depend on.

Especially for the elderly, people who are disabled and those with low income, not having reliable transportation in rural Utah means poverty, a lack of socialization and the increased likelihood of unemployment.

Citizens of Springdale, the remote gateway town into the popular Zion National Park, now face two problems.

For one, tourists cause traffic congestion for miles just trying to get into the park, the noise and gas emissions of which are a cause for concern and uproar. Public places are crowded, and just finding a parking spot can sometimes be an adventure.

Cars stretch into neighboring Springdale and beyond outside of Zion National Park.

And second, Springdale has to grapple with its remoteness, with jobs for hire with no applicants, high housing costs and few options for essentials, forcing most to travel down the sometimes precarious SR-9 for the things they need like doctors, mechanics and groceries.

Springdale Mayor Stan Smith says the best solution to all of this would be a public transportation system, but he needs intercounty and state support to fund that kind of enterprise.

“I’m pushing so hard for that transit system, if it was up to me it should have been in a year and a half ago,” he said.

Traffic and tourism is tough

6,600 cars drive on SR-9 near Zion National Park per day on average.

What do you get when you have a small canyon, one road and the third-most-popular national park in the country all in one town? Traffic.

The Utah Department of Transportation estimates that on average, 6,600 vehicles drive on SR-9 near the park per day.

The park saw 4.5 million visitors in 2019, and the shuttle system moves around 6.6 million people annually, including those coming in and out of Springdale.

On any given day during peak season, the line of cars from Zion’s gates trails into the town, leaving dozens of cars idling constantly on the road, blocking businesses and essential services.

UDOT is very aware of the traffic situation in Springdale, and officials said they support ideas for more ways to move people safely and efficiently.

“The road ends at Springdale. If you’ve ever tried to get in the national parks on a busy day, there’s always idling vehicles. It’s a pretty unpleasant experience for the residents of Springdale,” Jeff Sanders, UDOT Regional Transportation Planner said.

Mayor Smith said there is understandably “talk about how bad it is” and citizens “absolutely don’t like it.”

A view of Zion National Park from next to Springdale Town Hall and Zion Canyon Mesa.

But, he says he constantly reminds citizens that tourism is what keeps their town afloat.

“We will collect in property taxes somewhere in the neighborhood of $72,000 a year. My budget for this next year is about $6.5 million. The majority of that money is coming from sales tax, transit tax, resort tax,” Smith said. “People might not like to see these tourists, but that’s what’s keeping their property tax down.”

He attributes a lot of the tourism to the shuttles, saying, “they are very much needed, we couldn’t have the visitation that we have without the shuttles.”

And you can’t talk about traffic without talking about parking.

Parking in Zion National Park, especially the visitor center, fills up early nearly every day, forcing visitors to find parking in Springdale.

The problem is there are too many visitors and not enough parking. People can drive into Springdale and then use the shuttle, decreasing cars on the road, but where are they going to put the car they used to get to the area?

People park on the side of the road, on top of vegetation which is bad for the wildlife and could potentially start a wildfire. Parking lots to essential businesses fill up and visitors have even parked in driveways and in front of homes.

Residents say they are frustrated but know the tourism is a necessary evil.

Kevin McLaws, resident and owner of Zion Mountain Ranch on the east side of the park, said the driving terrain can be intimidating for visitors and he sees the many problems that naturally come with being a gateway community. Mostly, he just wants a public transportation solution, like yesterday.

“But that’s the question I bring up, is why is this taking so long? Let’s do it,” he said.

Work is dependent on transportation

There are 529 citizens of Springdale town, according to the 2010 census. But there were 4.5 million visitors to Zion National Park in 2019.

Springdale is like many other gateway communities to National Parks which suffer from and are dependent on tourism to pay for everything from governmental services to putting money in the pockets of employees.

Smith, who is also a business owner in Springdale, also said there are a lot of jobs in the town and “a lot of times” they can’t fill jobs because there are not enough people to apply.

“I know there are people in Hurricane and La Verkin who would like to come up and work but they don’t have reliable transportation,” he said.

Sanders at UDOT says more public transportation would bring equity to those who suffer from the heavily car-reliant area and its costs.

“Public transportation enables people that are unable to leave the house and can’t afford a car to come back into society,” he said.  “One of the biggest opportunities, when you consider a lot of the employees in Springdale and in the future on the east side, there is an opportunity to provide cheap, reliable transportation for those employees.”

And while Springdale is not as remote as it used to be and there are a few small shops that provide necessities, Smith said, there’s still many who depend on others to drive them down out of the canyon for hospital trips, grocery shopping and other basic services.

State tourism officials managers are involved in trying to figure out the best solutions to gateway town’s problems when it comes to overtourism.

“We feel like it’s about managing the visitor experience and managing the community experience. There are definitely parts of the state where they don’t want more tourists and we don’t want to force tourists on them if that’s not their community goal,” Vicki Varela, Managing Director of the Utah Office of Tourism said.

Other parks, communities struggle with transportation too

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Capitol Reef National Park, a long and narrow park just west of Canyonlands, does not have a shuttle at all. And that’s just fine for them. Mostly.

There’s a road that runs through it that many truckers and drivers alike use to get from one place to another. But for those who stop and look around awhile, over 1.2 million in 2019, the parking situation can be rough.

Superintendent Susan Fritzke said none of the parking areas are designed to handle the capacity and size of modern cars and recreational vehicles, as they were built in the 1960s.

While park officials are looking at the potential of increasing parking lot size, they’re also dealing with people parking on the shoulder which, as aforementioned, is dangerous to the wildlife and could potentially start a wildfire.

But Fritzke says Capitol Reef, like other parks and gateway towns, are constantly trying to figure out solutions to their transportation issues.

“Parks are located in places where there are interesting things that need to be protected, I can’t pick up this park and move it when I need to,” she said. “Every park is different and every park comes up with solutions that fit them.”

Passengers board Bryce Canyon National Park Shuttles, which were replaced in 2016.

Bryce Canyon National Park, like Zion, started their own shuttle system in 2000. But, unlike Zion, they were able to replace the degrading shuttles in 2016.

Their new shuttles served over 2.5 million people in 2019. Their solution is inspiring but frustrating for those pushing for Zion to get new shuttles, but also for those pushing for more regional public transportation.

Recently, lawmakers and advocates have been pushing to move ahead on projects that will solve many of Springdale’s transportation issues as well as connecting much of Utah, including potentially connecting all five National Parks.

Now the questions are only, how and when?

K. Sophie Will is the National Parks Reporter for The Spectrum & Daily News through the Report for America initiative by The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter at @ksophiewill or email her at kswill@thespectrum.com.

Zion National Park’s shuttles are falling apart, but there is no funding to replace them. Why?

Editor’s Note: This is the first story in a three part series about regional transportation in southern Utah for citizens and tourists alike. 

Every day, packed shuttles chug through Zion National Park carrying thousands of hikers, bikers, tourists and locals into the country’s third most visited National Park.

The nearly 40 buses they have on hand have carried passengers since 2000, and haven’t been replaced since, much to the dismay of visitors and park officials alike.

Between the upkeep and many repairs, 79% of all park entrance fees go toward just keeping the shuttles running, totaling to about $5 million a year. Though, new estimates suggest that number is nearing closer to 65%.

These buses are not even manufactured anymore, forcing the rangers to cannibalize broken down buses for parts, or even buy them off of eBay.

Not to mention the noise and emissions caused by running that many propane buses up and down a scenic, serene canyon, which disturbs wildlife.

Zion is not ignorant of these problems. They’ve been desperately trying to secure federal funding to replace the shuttles since 2017.

The shuttles through Zion National Park canyon reopened July 1, 2020 to thousands of visitors amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But Zion has been repeatedly denied this urgent funding by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and Zion’s partners don’t know why.

The replacement project even has letters of support from Governor Gary Herbert, former Senator Orrin Hatch, Senator Mike Lee, and Representative Chris Stewart called it a “top priority” for the region.

Advocacy organizations continue to be perplexed on why this funding hasn’t been awarded.

“This is such a high priority and such a need, why isn’t it being addressed? Why isn’t it one of the priority projects that get picked?” Emily Douce, Director of Operations and Park Funding for the National Parks Conservation Association said. “It’s just a disaster waiting to happen. People are not going to be happy when they aren’t running.”

Double time for overtourism

Visitors on June 6, 2000 wait at the Zion National Park Visitor Center for the newly minted shuttle.

When Zion started using the shuttle service in 2000, they never were supposed to last this long.

The buses, manufactured and run by French-owned company RaptDev, are only supposed to drive for 15,000 hours in their lifetime.

The Zion shuttles have run well over double that.

For the popular park, who saw 4.5 million visitors in 2019, they have no choice but to run these buses to the ground. Zion says they move around 6.6 million people annually, including those in the gateway town of Springdale.

In 2000, the shuttles were a pioneering effort of collaboration between the National Park and Springdale. It was an answer to the problems then of noise in the canyon, over-parking and limited visitation.

But now, this fix seems temporary as the shuttles threaten to break down sooner rather than later.

79% of all Zion National Park entrance fees go to the maintenance and operation of 21-year-old shuttles, adding up to $5 million annually.

As has been seen with the coronavirus pandemic, the shuttles are essential to getting people into and around Zion. When they were closed as a safety precaution, hundreds of cars lined up around midnight the night before just to potentially have the chance to go up the canyon.

“What the Park Service does really well is they create an excellent visitor experience, but in doing that they mask the issues underneath. As long as they’re running, everything is OK, but they are going to stop running. We are going to be scrambling,” Cory MacNulty, Southwest Region Associate Director of the National Parks Conservation Association said. “If we lose the shuttle we lose the whole way that people experience Zion Canyon.”

There are 39 “power engines,” or a bus with the engine, and 23 trailers, cars that attach to the power engines for extra capacity.

To replace them all, it’s going to take $47 million, plus $1.5 million for charging stations and up to 14 years.

A Proterra electric bus operates at Zion National Park, part of a pilot program to see if electric vehicles could be used as the main shuttle fleet at the park.

In 2015, park officials started looking into replacing the shuttles, including doing studies to find the best options. After three years of study, the park, with $250,000 from Utah Clean Cities, bought two 35 foot Proterra battery-electric buses for trial.

This year, the National Park Service Washington Office approved the replacement of the whole fleet with battery-electric buses in order to cut emissions, become more cost-efficient and get in on the ground floor of an advancing technology quickly gaining market share.

The only problem? The money.

Three failed applications

In 2017, the Utah Department of Transportation, on behalf of the park, submitted an application to the Federal Department of Transportation’s Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grants program, (formerly known as TIGER,) for an award of $25 million, about half of what they need to fund the project.

Even with Washington County pledging a $100,000 match fund and the Zion Forever Foundation pledging a $300,000 match, the answer was no.

Again in 2018, UDOT submitted another application for the $25 million, but it was denied once more.

Last year, the park tried a different approach and applied for $35 million from the Federal Highway Administration’s Nationally Significant Federal Lands and Tribal Projects Program, which was again unsuccessful.

But why?

The BUILD grant is now advertised as $1 billion for “planning and capital investments in surface transportation infrastructure and are to be awarded on a competitive basis for projects that will have a significant local or regional impact.”

A U.S. DOT spokesperson said the grant program had a limited amount of funding in 2017 and 2018, and is highly competitive with about one out of every 10 project applicants awarded funds.

“The BUILD program enables DOT to examine these projects on their merits to help ensure that taxpayers are getting the highest value for every dollar invested,” they said.

They explained that BUILD applications are evaluated on criteria that include safety, economic competitiveness, quality of life, environmental sustainability, state of good repair, innovation, cost-benefit analysis, project readiness and partnership.

While this is all true, advocates are still frustrated at the lack of explanation of exactly why the applications were denied while there is so desperate a need.

“They had all the right pieces in place,” MacNulty with the NPCA said. “They’re piecing it together with bandaids and a whole lot of skill. Someday in the not-so-distant future, the system is going to fail. What has happened and continues to happen during COVID-19 really should be an eyeopener for us, just about how critical it is.”

The park is operating buses at limited capacity to ensure social distancing but is still moving thousands of people through the canyon every day.

Jack Burns, Chief of Commercial Services and Partnerships at Zion, said there’s a lot of need out there and they will be patiently persistent.

“While we feel that our needs are a priority, I think in the bigger spectrum, we need to recognize how great the needs are and we are just one of many,” he said. “I have full confidence that if there’s a financial ability to support us, they’ll try to do so.”

Even with the recent passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which could bring $220 million to Utah national parks and monuments, will most likely not cover the cost of replacing the shuttles.

Zion National Park alone has around $70 million in deferred maintenance without the shuttle cost. And technically, replacing the shuttles does not count as deferred maintenance, the NPCA said.

UDOT, while aware of the need like Burns, also do not know why these applications have been denied. They continue to push for ways to solve the shuttle problem.

“The transportation system is part of the experience of the park. Something to be enjoyed, not just as a means to an end,” Jeff Sanders, UDOT Regional Transportation Planner said. “If Zion can get shuttles at all, how come other national parks with integrated systems outside the park cannot? We’re just frustrated.”

The Federal Highway Administration did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A mock up of the electric shuttles that advocates and officials are hoping will replace the current propane shuttles.

Is there a better way?

This year, pending the application call, Zion will reapply to the FHA’s grant, asking for nearly the full $45 million including match funding.

While the park and UDOT will continue to apply, other ways to travel in, out and around Springdale have been emerging over the past few years.

Washington County has been making progress on an electric shuttle from St. George to Washington, Hurricane, La Verkin and Springdale.

To replace the whole fleet of shuttles at Zion National Park, it will take $48.5 million. And, 14 years.

Kane County, in partnership with Utah Clean Cities, is moving forward with plans to bring more tourism to the remote east side Zion and connecting it to Kanab with state-of-the-art electric shuttles.

Mt. Carmel Tunnel, the historic pass which is often a bottleneck because of oversized vehicles, is in desperate need of new transportation solutions. With 33,000 vehicle escorts through the tunnel in 2019, Utah Clean Cities is hoping to also alleviate traffic with their shuttle proposals.

There are even studies and conversations happening about utilizing already laid rail track from Salt Lake City to Moab to increase transportation to the east side of the state.

Vicki Varela, Managing Director of the Utah Office of Tourism, said all this cooperation to solve a huge problem in the southern part of the state is the “the most inspiring national parks project in the country right now.”

But to get to the regional shuttle system dream so many want to be realized, they have to first confront the problems of rural, remote, tourist country.

K. Sophie Will is the National Parks Reporter for The Spectrum & Daily News through the Report for America initiative by The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter at @ksophiewill or email her at kswill@thespectrum.com.

Researchers Identify A New Way To Curb Air Pollution

SALT LAKE CITY — Studies show those flashing real-time speed limit displays you see in neighborhoods are effective at telling motorists to slow down. Kerry Kelly thought: Could something like that help curb air pollution?

Kelly, a chemical engineering assistant professor at the University of Utah, and Utah State University psychology professor Gregory Madden came up with the idea of creating similar displays around areas such as schools and hospitals to see if they could help curtail idling, a main source of pollution.

They are part of a team that has received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to test their theory and place air-pollution displays at several schools and hospitals in Utah.

“Speed limit signs work so why couldn’t something like that work for people who are parked and idling their cars?” Kerry Kelly, Chemical Engineering Assistant Professor, University of Utah

The project will entail designing and developing a system that collects and integrates air-quality measurements, local weather conditions, and thermal images and dynamically provides feedback to drivers.

This system will operate similarly to real-time speed limit signs, known as Dynamic Speed Monitoring Displays or Dynamic Speed Display Signs. These displays motivate drivers to slow down by using built-in radar detectors that measure the speed of passing motorists and alert them by flashing their speed when they exceed the limit. Numerous studies have shown that these signs have been effective at modifying drivers’ behavior.

Kelly and her team, which also includes University of Utah School of Computing professor Ross Whitaker and U electrical and computer engineering associate professor Pierre-Emmanuel Gaillardon, will measure air quality with a set of low-cost air pollution sensors that continuously measure particulate matter (PM 2.5) as well as ozone, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide levels. They will also measure wind speed and direction to determine when changing winds alter the pollution levels.

The sensors will be wirelessly connected to big LED displays that present messages alerting parked motorists when air pollution readings rise to dangerous levels. The hope is these warnings can motivate people to turn off their engines.

Each display would gather integrated measurements from three to five custom-made sensor nodes that cover about a 200-foot area. Kelly and her team would also use thermal imaging to determine how many cars are idling at one time to alert drivers when too many vehicles are still running.

USU’s Madden, who specializes in the field of “behavioral economics,” would create community-crafted messages for the displays that best motivate the drivers to make smart choices.

The pilot project would involve placing signs at drop off zones at one school and one hospital each in Salt Lake and Cache counties.

Intermountain Healthcare, which operates 24 hospitals in Utah, is working with Kelly on the project as well as the Utah Clean Cities Coalition, which helps organizations and fleets to reduce vehicle emissions. She hopes to begin the pilot in the winter of 2021.

Researchers estimate that idling not only wastes about six billion gallons of fuel each year but that personal vehicles alone generate around 30 million tons of toxic carbon dioxide just by idling, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Seven states and parts of Utah have restricted idling.

Kelly, who is also associate director of the U’s Program for Air Quality, Health and Society and serves on the Utah State Air Quality Policy Board, said people receive most of their exposure to air pollution during their commute to and from work and that children can be exposed to pollution most during the pickup and drop off at school.

“Children are much closer in height to where the tailpipe is,” she says, “and they have a much faster breathing rate than adults, and their lungs are still developing, which means they’re more susceptible to pollution.”

If the pilot project proves successful, Kelly hopes one day these air-pollution displays can raise awareness for motorists about air pollution the same way speed limit displays have been helping them slow down.

“This could be as ubiquitous as speed limit signs if we have them at school drop off zones, airports, and other places to discourage idling,” she says. “More broadly, you can use this kind of information to help people think about the environment and health and the decisions they’re making. This could make a difference.”