County terminates shuttle deal with Glacier Park

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The free shuttle's future in Glacier Park remains in doubt after the county opted out of an agreement with the Park on Wednesday.

The wheels of Glacier National Park’s free shuttle system will officially come to a halt Dec. 31 after the Flathead County commissioners on Wednesday voted unanimously to terminate the park’s long-standing partnership with the county to maintain and operate the system, citing concerns over a substantial lack of funding from the park, shuttle safety, among other reasons.

Beginning in 2007, Glacier National Park, the Montana Department of Transportation and Flathead County’s Eagle Transit public transit system entered into the Glacier Transit Cooperative Agreement. The agreement set forth terms to create a free shuttle service along Going-to-the-Sun Road that was to be funded by the park and maintained and operated by Eagle Transit. However, throughout the years Flathead County taxpayers have subsidized the cost of maintaining and operating the shuttle system, according to the commissioners.

All three commissioners said the decision to terminate the partnership was not an easy one, but stressed how the county has exhausted attempts in recent years to work with the park in finding a way the shuttle system can grow and operate in a way that benefits the park, its visitors and surrounding communities. Those attempts, according to county officials, have been far from fruitful.

“We’ve received no plan from Glacier National Park, in writing, to solve this issue. We’re playing games with the park and this is what I call a gross, gross government bureaucracy at its finest,” Commissioner Phil Mitchell said. “We, the people, who come to visit the park expect — actually I’m going to say demand — a transportation plan that allows visitors, us, to visit the park.”

Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow, spoke during a public comment period on Wednesday, and took the time to thank Flathead County for its partnership.

“I want to take this opportunity to thank Flathead County for being a partner with Glacier National Park for the last 13 years in providing transit services,” Mow said. “I think if you look back though 13 years at what has happened since then, a lot has taken place, including a 64% increase in visitation to the park. The conditions under which all of us have to operate have changed dramatically.”

Mow added he has only recently been able to loop officials at the regional and state offices into conversations about the park’s public transit situation. He said with those lines of communications now in place, the park more effectively can move forward with discussions as to how to support an integrated transit system in the future.

On Wednesday afternoon the park sent out a press release announcing park management is pursuing options for providing a shuttle service for the 2020 season. Mow then said in a prepared statement, “Learning about the challenges our partner faced made us realize that we need to explore new models for our transit-system operations. The cancellation of the agreement provides us with an opportunity to develop the next generation of the system. Now is the time to reset and think about what makes sense for our future.”

The shuttle has become one of the most popular forms of transportation in Glacier Park, with ridership more than doubling in the last 12 years from 100,000 to about 250,000 rides. But according to officials with Eagle Transit, the park has failed to allocate any additional funds despite the spike in ridership.

“The partnership has not been working well for quite some time,” said Lisa Sheppard, director of the Agency IX on Aging that oversees Eagle Transit. “Since 2007 our funding has remained relatively flat. So we haven’t gotten any additional funding nor have there been any additional buses or other amendments in place to deal with the increased visitation.”

In a letter signed by the commissioners and addressed to Mow, five key reasons for termination of the relationship were outlined.

Chief among those reasons is the park’s failure to appropriate enough money to guarantee the shuttle system operates safely for the thousands who hop aboard every year. Specifically, officials with Eagle Transit say they have not received the funding necessary to properly maintain the outdated shuttle fleet to manufacturer and Federal Transportation Administration standards, nor have they been provided enough funding to recruit, train and retain qualified drivers, dispatchers and other staff. The letter elaborates that not only has the training budget for new employees been cut over time, but wages have not kept up with the pace of the labor market.

Since Flathead County is tasked with maintaining and operating the system, it is the entity that would be held liable should anything happen to a bus and its riders. And, as a backlog of maintenance needs are backed up against a broken budget, the commissioners agreed they had no choice but to terminate the agreement in the interest of rider safety.

“Our number one concern as county commissioners is the safety of the people in our county which overlaps into our personnel working as drivers for the transit system,” Commissioner Randy Brodehl said. “These are 2006 to 2009 buses and they are not brought up to FTA standards. The park has opted to not meet the safety standards that we believe they should be required to maintain.”

According to Sheppard, Eagle Transit operated the aging shuttle system on a budget of around $800,000 per year. She said that figure should be closer to $1.45 million in order to continue operating the system as is, but properly. Sheppard said the $1.45 million estimate was reached by adding a 2% increase to the $800,000 base every year since the agreement’s inception and then adding $200,000 on top of those administrative and maintenance costs.

That figure would allow the current outdated fleet to be maintained properly, would assure Eagle Transit could recruit, retain and train qualified staff and would cover administrative costs, which were not included in the park’s payments to Eagle Transit until 2013.

“This amount isn’t at all out of line with what we should expect, given very modest increases in cost,” Sheppard said.

In a breakdown of the costs in the letter addressed to Mow, the document states “current GNP operations are heavily subsidized by Area IX Agency on Aging/Eagle Transit management and administrative staff, organizational infrastructure and support from other county departments…”

Sheppard did not have an exact number as to how much the county has given to support the system over the years but said it is well into the thousands of dollars. Those monies, Sheppard stressed, are taxpayer dollars that are being used to fund the park shuttle system. Glacier Park does not pay taxes despite being the area’s largest economic boon.

“We make no money on this,” Mitchell said. “The commissioners will not subsidize the Glacier National Park transportation plan and have Flathead County citizens pick up its costs.”

The letter further states the park has “chosen to use gate fees set aside for the transit system to fund GNP positions that provide very limited support to the shuttle system,” and “this practice adds no value to the system and prevents funds from being allocated to Eagle Transit to provide effective management and oversight.”

Ten percent of every gate fee is given to support the transportation system. But county officials say not all of that agreed upon portion has gone to fulfilling its purpose. According to the letter, this misallocation of funds and other incidents, including a failure on the park’s part to engage Eagle Transit in discussions surrounding fleet management, have eroded trust between the stakeholders.

“Maybe if the park spent their transportation monies for transportation, this would not be an issue. Where are those monies going?” Mitchell asked.

Decision to end shuttle agreement comes amid ‘unprecedented’ visitation

The termination of Flathead County’s shuttle system agreement with Glacier National Park comes on the heels of the park’s release of its highly anticipated Going-to-the-Sun Road Corridor Management Plan.

The document, which took six years to create, is filled with possible solutions, some more ambitious than others, for tackling the park’s swelling visitation. The plan describes the visitation numbers as “unpredecented.”

The 184-page plan notes that from 2015 to 2017 alone, Glacier saw an increase of more than 3.3. million visitors. The conclusion of the document notes traffic engineers categorized the Going-to-the-Sun Road as having “volumes near capacity” with unstable flows — an issue many believe could be partially mitigated if the park expanded its transportation system.

For about two months, park officials opened the plan up to public comments and held a public meeting where many people pushed for an expansion of the system as a means to alleviate foot and vehicle traffic.

At that same meeting, local Agency on Aging Director Lisa Sheppard unveiled a proposal for “The Mountain Climber,” a transit system based on the one that has been successfully implemented in Acadia National Park. The system is an ambitious one that would not only update the park’s aging fleet, but also better connect the gateway communities of Columbia Falls, Kalispell, Whitefish and others to the park. Multiple community stakeholders, including the commissioners, city officials and others, offered letters of support for The Mountain Climber.

Sheppard and others had done extensive research on other national park public transit systems and, after a visit to Acadia, determined the system is one Glacier could replicate with enough buy-in from the community and, of course, from Glacier National Park.

But Sheppard emphasized The Mountain Climber should be funded primarily by the park, as other systems throughout the nation are — something that seems highly unlikely given the park hasn’t provide the funds necessary to operate the current shuttle system. According to Sheppard, Eagle Transit leaders invited Glacier officials to visit Acadia with them and see first hand how a successful transit system can operate in a national park. But Mow and others declined the invite.

Sheppard said this wasn’t the first time the park expressed little interest in addressing public transit. She said the last time park leadership approached Eagle Transit about the current system was in 2016 and that this year she was only given a few days’ notice before the Going-to-the-Sun Plan was released for public comment. The contents of the plan should have included extensive discussions with the county regarding transportation possibilities, Sheppard maintained.

Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl emphasized how Mow’s apparent slim interest in The Mountain Climber went against the very idea behind the 13-year cooperative agreement.

“It means both of you are working together to come up with a plan. That didn’t happen in this,” Brodehl said. “It’s been about three years since there was a real communication between us and them. This cooperative agreement began failing years ago.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Mow said The Mountain Climber might still be considered as a public transit system, describing the concept as one he and others would like to hear more about “in the future” and acknowledged the partnership is something that can and should continue in some capacity.

“At the end of the day, the door is still open to the park,” said Commissioner Pam Holmquist. “But we have to watch out for taxpayers and the safety of the people.”

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