Last month the National Park Service started asking what to do about crowds at Mount Rainier National Park overwhelming parking and road space. More parking would be very expensive and undesirable for the atmosphere of the park. Anywhere parking and road space are at a premium, transit is an obvious answer. But what would be involved in making service good enough that people would actually use it?
The obvious terminus for any Mt. Rainier bus service is the Tacoma Dome. It is the closest major regional transit hub and also has ample surplus parking on weekends. There are excellent, frequent bus connections at all times and light rail coming in the (early?) 2030s. And luckily, with the exception of Sunrise, all the accessible attractions are essentially on a linear path.
The bad news is that even the closest major hub is a long, long way to Mt. Rainier.
While there might not be any stops outside the park except for the terminus, buses obviously run a bit slower than Google’s hypothetical driver. There will also have to be a driver break. An ideal service would have potential stops at each trailhead on the road, but in practice most delays will accrue at the visitor centers. As the point of this is to mitigate existing congestion, traffic will slow these buses down. In all, it would be quite ambitious to budget a trip as less than 8 hours in all.
Peak congestion is June to September. So let’s imagine a route that only runs counterclockwise, on weekends with hourly departures from the Tacoma Dome from 7am to 6pm. That’s about 96 service hours per day on about 38 Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. If the NPS can get a $175/hr rate from Pierce Transit, this comes out to about $638,000 per year. You could double it and get headways down to 30 minutes, and double again to have buses going in both directions, both of which would be nice but by no means critical unless ridership is so high that there isn’t enough capacity.
This is not large in the scheme of federal programs, or obvious alternatives like building more parking, and we haven’t even charged a fare yet. On the other hand, it would be important to build a queue jump at the main gate so that the bus can bypass the long wait there. This probably means building a mile or two of bus lane on SR706 leading up to the gate, a one-time expense that won’t be cheap.
Quite aside from the narrow “congestion reduction” objectives, this would also greatly expand ways to interact with the park. People without cars could get there. Backpackers could go into the wilderness without leaving a car somewhere for days one end. And point-to-point hikes become vastly more practical.
Adding a transit option is often a cursory gesture that doesn’t produce something attractive enough to actually use. Transit planning principles suggest that something following roughly this design would be an option appealing to those who value their time, perhaps enough to make a dent in the problems NPS is trying to address.
The NPS is accepting public comment on their problem through October 10th.