APGAR — Launched in 2007, when a decade-long rehabilitation of Going-to-the-Sun Road began, Glacier National Park’s optional but free shuttle bus system was meant to reduce the number of vehicles waiting in lines caused by the road work.

Nine years later, the lines are made of flesh, not metal, and they form at the bus stops, not on the road.

On Thursday alone, 3,534 people rode the free buses, marking the 10th consecutive day where ridership topped 3,000 people.

This on a system where the average ridership, since it began, is 912 people a day.

The 2016 shuttle service swung into action on July 1. Buses have been carrying more than 2,000 people a day above that average ever since. As of Thursday, 82,797 people had ridden the shuttle system this summer.

That translates into an average daily ridership, over the first 28 days this year, of 2,957.

“It’s our highest use ever,” Glacier spokesman Tim Rains says. “It was started to deal with the road rehabilitation, but what’s happened is it’s become successful and popular in its own right.”

Indeed, ridership has soared in the one summer when no rehabilitation work is even being done on Going-to-the-Sun. The final phase of the project was pushed back to 2017 because of the record crowds anticipated during 2016, the centennial of the National Park Service.

Longer wait times

With the increased popularity of the shuttle system come problems. Even if the buses are on schedule, people may have to watch as many as three or four arrive, load up and go before their turn comes, especially at peak times. 

Kathy Olmstead of Medford, Ore., said she and her group of first-time Glacier visitors arrived at the Apgar Visitor Center at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, and waited in line as three buses came and went before they could board one.

“It might have been about 45 minutes,” Olmstead said. “But at other stops we were able to walk right on. It was busy, but OK. It was still much better than driving, because the one who’s driving has to look at the road, not the scenery.”

Cody and Rachel Detwiler of Rochester, Ind., in Glacier for their honeymoon, also waited in line for 45 minutes Wednesday to catch the first of the buses that would take them to Logan Pass, where they spent the day hiking the Highline Trail.

“It would have worked great, except they were not letting people hold the ropes,” Cody Detwiler said.

The larger buses in the system have room for people to stand once the seats fill up.

“Another 10 could have gotten on” if people had been allowed to stand, he said. “It was still better than driving, because you don’t have to worry about finding a place to park.”

Reducing the pressure on coveted parking spots along Going-to-the-Sun’s 50 miles was expected to be another benefit of the shuttle system when it began, and Rains says there’s been a 5 percent decrease in the number of vehicles competing for those spaces.

But it’s now the Apgar Visitor Center parking lot that often overflows, forcing drivers to make parking spots where none exist on the side of the road leading in.

And the lot at Logan Pass, at the top of the Continental Divide, often remains chock-full.

“In the middle of the day, it takes your breath away,” Rains says. “Both the view, and the parking lot.”

More buses

The shuttle system started in 2007 with five snow coaches borrowed from Yellowstone National Park that were refitted for summer use.

Today, a fleet of 27 buses make up Glacier’s transit system, which includes 15 stops where riders can get off or board along the 50-mile route.

But it’s not as simple as 27 buses running between Apgar on the west side of the park, to St. Mary on the east, with 13 stops in between. That’s because Glacier doesn’t allow vehicles longer than 21 feet on much of the narrow, two-lane road that hugs the sides of cliffs on portions of the journey.

While four different sizes of buses make up the fleet, Rains says they can be divided into two categories. Six large ones that seat up to 24 people and have room for people to stand are used between Apgar and Avalanche on the west side, and St. Mary and Logan Pass on the east.

Twenty-one smaller ones, that seat up to 15 people, can be used anywhere, but are the only ones that can operate in the alpine areas between Avalanche and Logan Pass.

“The difference is not so much the number of seats, as it is where they can go,” Rains says.

The fleet is also divided into ones that operate on the west side of the park, where ridership is heaviest, and the east side. That means most riders –including everyone who turns the 50-mile route into a 100-mile round trip – must switch buses a few times along the way.

“It’s a complex system,” Rains says, “and we’re constantly adapting to increasing ridership. We’re very proactive about trends in ridership.”

Mixed reactions

“Yowsers!” the park posted on its Facebook page early last week, before another 15,000 people had ridden the buses. “72,500 visitors have opted to ride the free Glacier National Park shuttle service this summer to date! If you’re on your way to the park this week, plan on extended wait times at all major transit hubs.”

The post drew more than 1,000 reactions, 113 shares and 46 comments.

“Great way to cut down on congestion on Going-to-the-Sun Road,” Kristy Hall Johnson wrote. “Drivers are friendly and helpful!”

“They do a great job,” agreed Robin Rivers Krause. “Lots of people coming and going.”

Others weren’t as pleased.

“I was disappointed with the wait time,” Tara Leslie Werner of Missoula posted. “We didn’t get to do nearly as much in the park as we wanted to because it took so long. We’re local, avid Glacier visitors and we won’t use the shuttle again.”

Another poster, Diana InMontana, said she had to wait more than an hour for a third bus to show up on her trip to the top of Going-to-the-Sun, and added, “Don’t even get me started on the horrible return trip from Logan pass with no air (conditioning) and then Avalanche to Apgar (was) standing-room only … packed in like sardines. We had to watch an 80-year-old gentleman try to hold on for his life because no one would give up their seat.”

The air conditioning system must have been broken on that bus, that day, because all the buses are air conditioned. It’s something Lara Dominy of Powell, Ohio, especially appreciated after hiking for four hours at Avalanche Creek on Wednesday.

“It worked very well,” Dominy said of the shuttle system. “The AC was wonderful, the drivers were all nice, the buses were clean and we were able to get seats right away on the way back. I was very grateful for that after a four-hour hike.”

Decreasing congestion

Glacier officials are working on Going-to-the-Sun Road Corridor Management Plan that should come up for public review this fall, a year after it was initially scheduled to be completed.

Its pre-draft version contained four new approaches for dealing with increased visitation and congestion on the road. One of the options included ending the shuttle bus service. That seems unlikely, given the growing ridership.

But there may be other factors at play this summer too, Rains noted, that either won’t or may not be in the mix in the future. The record crowds already showing up during the NPS centennial are one. Low gas prices, and a lack of wildfires so far, also may be contributing to increased visitation and, along with it, increased use of Glacier’s free public transit system.

The growth in ridership in this, the shuttle system’s ninth year, has been remarkable.

Shelly Lang of Boise first rode the shuttle system last summer, when she and her husband Jon were visiting Glacier.

Shelly was riding the bus again Wednesday, but not Jon.

He was driving one.

“He wound up sitting up front next to the driver last year and got to talking with him,” Shelly said. “He’s retired, so he put in for one of the jobs this year, got it, and we hauled our fifth-wheel up and now he’s driving four days a week, 12 hours a day. He loves it. He says there’s not a person in America who has a better office window than he does.”

At the rate it’s going, ridership is expected to approach 200,000 people this summer, Rains said. The service runs through Labor Day weekend, and for the first time, the park will continue limited service between the Apgar Visitor Center and Logan Pass through Sept. 18.

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