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From: "Jim Dent" james DOT dent AT itochu DOT com
Date: Wed, 30 Jan 2002 15:07:16 -0500
Subject: At Grand Canyon, No Way to Run a Railroad
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From the NY Times...
January 28, 2002
At Grand Canyon, No Way to Run a Railroad
By BLAINE HARDEN
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz., Jan. 26 — As this sublime hole in the
ground succumbs to its second century of mass tourism, there is a weird new
wrinkle in the love-it-to-death romance between the Grand Canyon and the
nearly five million people who descend upon it every year.
That wrinkle is a train station that has neither tracks nor trains. The
station, part of a $16.6 million Canyon View Information Plaza Orientation/
Transit Center, is the last stop on a light-rail transit system that does
not exist and is not being built.
Therein lies a cart-before-the- horse story of the New West. It is a tale of
how the federal government has tried and, so far, failed to cure the
postmodern curse of the Grand Canyon — too many tourists in too many cars
and no place to park.
There's a subplot involving Democrats who embraced mass-transit at the
canyon and Republicans who stalled it. There's the strange spectacle of a
gleaming new National Park Service visitors center that not many visitors
visit. There's even a soundtrack. It builds to a nerve-jangling peak in
midsummer, when the canyon echoes to the honking horns and screamed
obscenities of incensed drivers who cannot find a place to park.
Perhaps no one is more annoyed by all this than Lori Hedgepeth, a veteran
park ranger here. As part of her official duties, she tries to head off
fisticuffs between drivers who joust for parking at Mather Point, a popular
canyon overlook where thousands of cars a day compete for 65 slots.
"It is like the mall on Christmas Eve," said Ms. Hedgepeth, who adds that
she would like to see "happier visitors who didn't complain about parking."
So would Park Service planners who have spent the past decade trying to
bring mass transit to the Grand Canyon. So would the three Republican
members of Congress who, in the final hours before the light-rail plan went
out for bids in November 2000, postponed the train project that had been
championed for years by Bruce Babbitt, secretary of the interior under
President Bill Clinton. So would park visitors.
In recent years, tens of thousands of them have begun to steer clear of the
park during the summer (although visits are increasing in fall, winter and
So far, though, there is no consensus about how to make the visitors or the
planners or the politicians happy. Nor can anyone say whether tourists will
ever arrive by train at the center.
The story of the trainless train station is part of a century-old epic of
unsettled sightseeing here.
Near the beginning, Theodore Roosevelt, who more or less invented the
national park here, stood at the southern rim of the canyon in 1903 and
proclaimed that no "building of any kind" should "mar the wonderful
grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon." At
almost the same spot where Roosevelt threw down his gauntlet, a hotel was
erected in 1905.
Near the end, a 1999 guidebook, "Frommer's Family Vacations in the National
Parks," lamented that "the crowding grows ever worse, the experience of
visiting the park has been ruined."
In between, the canyon devolved in the American imagination from an
inaccessible symbol of Manifest Destiny, to an expensive destination resort
for the upper class, to a traffic-choked icon of a national park system that
is overcrowded and underfinanced.
"The experience of the Grand Canyon is being held hostage to congestion,"
said Joseph F. Alston, superintendent of the park, in an interview on
Friday. Like most Park Service officials here, Mr. Alston said he believes
that the best, if not the cheapest, solution to automobile blight is light
The hostage situation at Grand Canyon appears to have gotten significantly
more insoluble in the waning weeks of the Clinton administration.
Until then, the $180 million to $200 million plan for rail transit at the
park was moving briskly toward construction. It was to have been the
culmination of a 10-year planning effort by the Park Service, which has been
embarrassed for years by crowding at one of its most famous and most popular
The tourist train was also a pet project of Mr. Babbitt, an activist
overseer of the national parks and an Arizonan. According to Park Service
officials here, it was the secretary of the interior who insisted that the
visitors center/train station be completed before bids even went out to
build the train system itself.
"It was a way of establishing momentum," said Brad Traver, a Park Service
official who wrote the long- term management plan for the Grand Canyon's
future. "If we had waited until everything was ready to go, we would had
The center was officially opened in October 2000. One month and one
presidential election later, three Republican lawmakers — Senator Jon Kyl
and Representative John Shadegg of Arizona and Representative Ralph Regula
of Ohio — came to the Grand Canyon and declared their profound reservations
about the cost and rationality of rail transit in the park. The rail plan
would have required most visitors to leave their cars outside the park and
travel to the canyon's rim by train.
Mr. Regula, then chairman of a House subcommittee that appropriates money
for park projects, said the cost of the rail system seemed excessive and he
worried that tourists might find the system inconvenient. The two Arizona
lawmakers were equally dubious.
The lawmakers asked why cheaper options, such as a bus system, had not been
explored. They suggested that admission to the park by train, which the Park
Service estimated at $11 per person, might be too expensive for many
families. (It now costs $20 per car to get in.) They also noted that the
number of visitors had flattened in the 1990's, and they wondered if the
time really was ripe for spending federal money to reduce congestion that,
for the moment, at least, was not getting worse.
The congressmen may have got their causality confused. Reports of odious
crowding at the canyon, widely circulated for two decades, probably caused
tourism to go flat, a number of Park Service officials said. They say fewer
people came to the canyon at peak season in the 1990's because they feared
"How it is possible that you can go through a 10-year planning process and
have three members of Congress derail it in a couple of days?" asks Deborah
Tuck, president of the Grand Canyon National Park Foundation, a private
group that has raised more than $7 million to improve and maintain the park.
"I don't know what the answer to that is."
In any case, the Republican lawmakers returned to Washington and, in
December 2000, succeeded in passing legislation that forbade the Park
Service to spend any more money on rail transit until a study had been done
of all other transit options.
"While Babbitt was in office, the Arizona delegation let him do his thing
with light rail," said Mr. Traver, the Park Service planning official. "But
as it became clear that there was probably going to be a Republican in the
White House, the delegation didn't continue to feel they had any obligation
to have a hands-off approach."
The Park Service did as Congress instructed and put together a study of five
different mass transit options, ranging from regular city buses to light
rail. That study was completed and sent to the Office of Management and
Budget in Washington on July 2.
There it sits. Republican lawmakers from Arizona say they want action at
Grand Canyon and they want it soon, but they are not quite sure what that
action should be. They are all waiting for the budget office.
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, is "disappointed that the
process was delayed," his spokesman said, "but he believes it's time to move
forward in a constructive way." Senator Kyl "has been supportive of efforts
by the Park Service to alleviate congestion, but the question is what is the
appropriate means to do this," his spokesman said. Representative Shadegg
"wants to see a solution as soon as possible," his spokesman said. But the
congressman could not say what that solution might be.
In the decades before tourists played chicken in their cars while looking
for parking, Grand Canyon National Park was mainly accessible by train.
Before World War II, it was a beloved pilgrimage site for intellectuals and
the wealthy. Many of them wrote about how seeing the canyon had made them
better human beings.
The British man of letters J. B. Priestly paid two visits here in the 1930's
and wrote an essay in which he concluded that the unsurpassed majesty of the
Grand Canyon should become the standard by which all Americans measure all
of their behavior.
"If I were an American," he wrote, "I should ask myself is this good enough
to exist in the same country as the Canyon? How would I feel about this man,
this kind of art, these political measures, if I were near the Rim?"
In a walk along the rim of the canyon on Friday, Mr. Alston, superintendent
of the park, avoided speculation about whether the politics that spawned the
trainless train station were worthy of the canyon.
Instead, Mr. Alston spoke of how splendidly peaceful it was to stroll along
the south rim in the January sun. In midwinter, there are few cars on the
road near the rim. No one honks, no one curses. An almost unearthly quiet
enhances the delicate pale colors of the mile-deep, 10-mile- wide chasm.
That quiet, of course, will end this summer, when 6,000 cars a day will
again prowl in search of the park's 2,400 parking spaces.
"It doesn't take a lot of observation," Mr. Alston said, "to see that there
has got to be a better way."