ST. GEORGE – An electric, battery-powered bus is making the rounds in Zion National Park in a three-month pilot program park officials are undertaking as they aim to eventually replace its current aging, liquid propane gas-fueled transit fleet.
Since Aug. 1, the new electric bus, a Proterra E2, has been a part of the regular, full-time routes in the national park and will continue to be through October. Though the park’s current shuttle system has served it well since its rollout in 2000, the park started looking at plans to move toward an electric transit fleet two years ago.
The park’s shuttle system has been operating for nearly two decades with vehicles just as old. Those vehicles, originally rated for 10 years and 100,000 miles of service are now approaching 18 years and 300,000 miles of use, park spokesman John Marciano said.
The seasonal shuttle system has been credited with saving the park as issues of traffic congestion, parking and vehicle pollution were growing concerns in the late 1990s.
The new bus is smaller than the shuttles currently used by the park, Marciano said. It sports bigger windows, air conditioning and is much, much quieter.
“They’re so very different,” he said, comparing the buses.
Some of the points park officials will be watching during the three-month evaluation period include how the bus battery holds out during use, battery charge time, passenger comfort and driver efficiency, Marciano said.
RATP Dev, the transit company involved in the pilot program, advocated a three-month evaluation period in order to better analyze how the bus holds up to large ridership numbers and temperatures that can reach over 110 degrees during the day.
“We are very excited to see how this new electric unit performs here at the park,” Frank Austin, RATP Dev’s general manager of the park’s transit service, said in an email. “Sustainability is a crucial goal here, and an electric bus fleet gives us the ability to continue to protect the park.”
In relation to ridership, the park’s transit system currently averages 105 riders per service hour, according to RATP Dev. The park’s buses and accompanying trailers hold up to 68 people per ride.
Visitation to Zion National Park is also seeing historic increases, becoming the fifth most visited national park in the United States with an estimated 4.3 million visits in 2016.
“Our pilot program will provide us with the necessary data we need to ensure that an electric fleet can reliably support the 5,143,148 riders we transported last year under the extreme conditions of the desert,” Austin said. “A true crucible test if there ever was one.”
The current pilot program is just one of many green transit options the park is considering, Marciano said.
Whether the electric bus used in the current pilot program or another is eventually selected, funding the replacement of the park’s transit fleet will be a challenge.
The Interior Department is looking at a possible 12 percent budget cut under President Donald Trump’s current budget proposal. There also currently exist $12 billion in deferred maintenance backlog the National Park Service has to deal with while those budget cuts loom ahead.
The park may seek funding “through grants and partnerships,” Marciano said, due to budget constraints.
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