Grand Canyon National Park Officials Release Transportation Plan EA

Grand Canyon National Park officials believe they have a solution to the persistent traffic congestion on the South Rim near Mather Point. NPS photo by Michael Quinn.

If you've been to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon during the high season, which anymore runs nearly eight months a year, you know just how hard it is to find a parking space or to simply navigate the area around Grand Canyon Village in your rig. Now, following nearly two years of work, the National Park Service has released its preferred solution to the rim's transportation woes.

Unfortunately, handcuffed largely, if not entirely, by cost constraints, that preference is for more parking spots on the rim and near Tusayan and for more entrance lanes at the South Entrance.

"We are excited about the potential changes to improve visitors' experience and safety through this plan," says Grand Canyon Superintendent Steve Martin. "Visitors, community members, and local businesses have long been under-served because of parking and traffic problems at Grand Canyon. Our visitors travel from all over the world to visit this natural wonder -- we need to provide the greatest level of protection to park resources and the best experience to those who come to see and learn about one of our nation's greatest assets."

The park's preferred alternative does aim for a reduction in private cars on the rim -- possibly as much as 30 percent in Grand Canyon Village by 2020 -- which is a good thing. But you have to wonder if the Park Service didn't miss its best opportunity to improve visitor services and protect the park's resources back in the mid-1990s when Grand Canyon officials got behind a light-rail proposal for moving the public about the South Rim.

Under that plan, all public parking for the rim would have been just north of Tusayan on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service. From there light rail would have run to Grand Canyon Village, where alternative-fuel buses would have been on hand to help the public move around the South Rim.

Sadly, cost estimates kept spiraling ever upward for that plan -- they were approaching $200 million just for construction of the system -- and Congress got skittish about underwriting it, especially since tourism to the South Rim didn't spiral upward as well.

Which brings us to the latest plan, under which park officials are proposing to mitigate the South Rim's traffic nightmares by:

* Allowing personal vehicle access to the Canyon View Information Plaza;

* Creating between 600 and 900 parking spots at the plaza, which currently has no public parking;

* Creating up to 400 parking spots near Tusayan, a move park officials hope will prompt more South Rim visitors to leave their cars there and take clean-burning shuttle buses to the rim;

* Rerouting the South Entrance Road south of the information plaza and removing vehicle parking at Mather Point, where there currently are about 100 parking spots;

* Enhancing the existing shuttle bus transit system, and;

* Increasing to six from five the number of entrance lanes at the South Entrance.

Is this a long-term solution? Well, through 2020 it is. But unless one agrees to continue building parking lots on the South Rim, as visitation continues to grow traffic congestion will always be an issue. How that issue is dealt with is the trick.

In 1995, when light-rail was the preferred solution, the Grand Canyon saw 4.5 million visitors and it was expected that number would climb to 6.85 million by 2010. In reality, that traffic dipped to 4 million in 2002 before working its way back up to 4.41 million last year. Now the prediction is that visitation will stay relatively flat until 2010, when the first phase of the transportation strategy is in place, and then grow towards 5.5 million by 2020.

A significant problem park officials hope this plan will cure is the parking of cars along the shoulder of roads primarily within the vicinity of Mather Point. If the plan is approved and moves forward, as parking lots are added there will be a greater effort to crackdown on shoulder parking.

"At any given moment on the South Rim for about eight months of the year we can have anywhere from 250 to 400 cars parked along the road at Mather Point looking for either Mather Point or looking for the Canyon View Information Plaza, which does not have any personal vehicle parking adjacent to it," Superintendent Martin told me.

"What we feel what this plan will do is allow for a much better visitor experience along the rim, and an opportunity to better utilize bicycling and our shuttle bus system," he added. "What we’re hoping the plan will do is link us in a positive way with the businesses in Tusayan and the Forest Service so that over time we can reduce congestion in the park, or certainly as we grow have parking in and shuttle systems from Tusayan in a way that will improve the park experience.”

Along with the proposed parking plan, the preferred alternative calls for improvements to Mather Point to open up some of the vistas that have been obscured by vegetation, to make trails more accessible, and provide more interpretive exhibits at the information plaza.

“The other thing that we have done is that we’ve built flexibility into the plan, which we feel is really important, because a lot of times we go in and do the final build-out first, and find out that we haven’t exactly predicted human behavior," said Superintendent Martin. "This plan gives us the opportunity to potentially change shuttle routes, to not add all the parking at once, to really work with the community and the Forest Service to make sure that we get the whole system working correctly. That’s another real important factor that we hope to do.”

Now, the preferred alternative, which is expected to cost $42.6 million in capital expenses and another $3.8 million annually in operational expenses, is not without its impacts. It calls for disturbing 24 acres on the South Rim, primarily for the additional parking, as well as 10 acres at Tusayan, another 3 at the South Entrance station, and 3 more for Greenway Trail improvements. Along the way nearly 4,500 trees will have to be removed. As a result, according to the environmental assessment, at least 48 bird territories will be lost and more than 700 small mammals will be affected by habitat loss.

There also will be archaeological impacts, soundscape impacts, and nightsky impacts. As for air quality impacts, the EA says "localized changes in pollutant concentrations could occur in areas such as Tusayan, the South Entrance Station, Canyon View Information Plaza, or Grand Canyon village... These effects to air quality would be below or at lower levels of detection and localized. Thus, pollutant levels would not substantially increase, resulting in long-term, negligible, adverse impacts on air quality in localized areas under all action alternatives (less than 50 tons per year for each pollutant)."

Through March 19 the Park Service will be taking comments on this proposal. Public meetings are scheduled for March 12 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Grand Canyon Squire in Tusayan, and on March 13 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Coconino National Forest offices in Flagstaff.

You can read the proposed plan, and the other alternatives, at this site. Comments also can be submitted online at this site.

Comments

The shuttle busses will not work. No one will voluntarily give up their car for the bus. They will only work if mandatory like Zion.

"Along with the proposed parking plan, the preferred alternative calls for improvements to Mather Point to open up some of the vistas that have been obscured by vegetation, to make trails more accessible, and provide more interpretive exhibits at the information plaza."

...obscured by vegetation...? So now we're clearing all that "natural stuff" so people can see the canyon without all that junk in the way... nice...

If the transportation option available is taking shuttles - people will take the shuttles. Zion National Park does it perfectly - a little sign is posted that says "Parking lots full. Please take shuttle." And people take the shuttle.

I currently work for the Sierra Club but before that i worked as a Grand Canyon tour guide and i know for a fact that many people who signed up for these tours did it - not b/c they prefer to be cramped into a small 12 passenger van with a bunch of strangers or for the "gourmet" turkey picnic - but rather, because they did not want to drive. Who wants to sit in traffic on their vacation, in a park nonetheless??

The National Park should be implementing Alternative C - immediate and aggressive implementation of a shuttle system from the town of Tusayan into the Park.