BOZEMAN, Mont. — Yellowstone National Park officials say traffic flow will improve at the park’s North Entrance thanks to a $10 million federal grant awarded to the Gardiner Gateway Project.
Park spokesman Al Nash told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that he expects more funds will be awarded to related projects now that the entrance upgrade project is moving forward.
Earlier this week, civil engineering graduate student Katrina Hecimovic was awarded a grant from the National Park Foundation to work on details of the newly approved entrance design. The work on the entrance is intended to improve traffic and pedestrian safety in the town of Gardiner. Nash said he hopes construction work will begin sometime in 2014.
For each of the past two years, about 3.4 million visitors drove the park highways, up from 2.8 million at the turn of the century. But like the entrances, the aging roadways are suffering the effects of more traffic jams as increasing numbers of visitors stop to watch wildlife, slowing the cars behind them.
The National Park Service website states that about 80 percent of the roads — that’s roughly 185 miles of roads — are in a structurally deficient state because they weren’t designed for the weight, speed and volume of modern traffic.
“We’re dealing with an aging infrastructure — so many roads were built without shoulders, one of the many things we now take for granted,” Nash said. “Pullouts really make a difference in traffic jams and flow.”
Some national parks dealing with similar issues have introduced mass transit options. Denali National Park led the trend when it established its mandatory shuttle system in 1972, and two years later the Grand Canyon National Park started an optional shuttle system. That system became mandatory in 2008. Managers at Zion National Park also instituted a mandatory shuttle system when the park hit 2.4 million visitors in 1997, though private cars may still tour the park during the off season.
Acadia, Bryce Canyon, Yosemite and Glacier national parks have shuttle routes but private vehicles also are allowed in the parks.
But Yellowstone is different, Nash said, in part because it’s size, variety of visitors and gates make designing a shuttle system more challenging. Nash said a past survey showed a high percentage of visitors come in one of the park’s five gates and leave through another.
“There’s been discussion of mass transit in the park for a long time, but how big and complex a system would you have to devise to be effective? What about funding?” Nash said. “Our focus has been on infrastructure because that is something we can control.”