It’s been one year and one national election since the 100th birthday celebrations for the National Park Service. With the economy still perking along, visitation at the Grand Canyon and many other parks continues at near record levels – it’s as if the party never ended. And with the Grand Canyon ready to celebrate its own centennial in 2019, last year’s record of 5.9 million visitors might not last long.
So it’s encouraging that the park has finally been given the green light to replace the decrepit 16-mile water pipeline that serves all of the South Rim. This is the line that starts at Roaring Springs halfway up the North Kaibab Trail, runs down to Phantom Ranch, then up the Bright Angel Trail to Grand Canyon Village. It has broken 80 times since 2010 due mainly to age – after six decades, the thin aluminum can’t withstand the extreme variations in temperature and moisture in the Canyon, especially during violent storms.
As we reported last week, the Park Service has spent $7 million in repairs in just the last three years and plans to spend $15 million in the next year. Replacement plans are priced between $75 million and $124 million, depending on the route and the number of pumping stations and treatment facilities. A decision is due next year, with construction to start in 2019.
The pipeline is the biggest but not the only capital project that has been on the park’s wish list for decades. In all, there is $372 million worth of deferred maintenance. Three of the main trails — South Kaibab, Bright Angel, and North Kaibab3 — are in need of repairs costing $33 million. Another $11 million is needed in camping areas, picnic shelters, and at scenic overlooks. Desert View Drive, which runs along 25 miles of the East Rim, needs more than $18 million in repairs. At the canyon’s North Rim, Cape Royal Road — leading to the widest panorama of any Grand Canyon overlook — requires more than $10 million in improvements. More than 200 historic structures also need to be repaired, at a cost of $5.5 million.
The Grand Canyon’s deferred maintenance is part of a $12 billion backlog throughout the National Park System. The Interior Department, which oversees the Park Service, is facing a $1.5 billion annual cut in the proposed White House budget, and park supporters are starting to look for public-private partnerships and self-funding through higher and dedicated fees.
The latter option might be a stretch at Grand Canyon, where the entry fee is already $30 a car for a week. A state or regional tax, however, might find favor with lawmakers and voters, given that annual visitor spending creates 9,800 jobs with an estimated payroll of $334 million, nearly as much in one year as the entire backlog of repairs.
Not all of it has to be funded at once, but the longer that repairs are put off, the more expensive they become. And that doesn’t even count expanding the South Rim transit system to get more people out of their cars – a light rail system from Tusayan also has been talked about.
And with the park’s centennial coming up, the crush of summer visitors in particular will only increase. Park staff are advising tourists with cars to arrive before 9 a.m. to avoid the parking crunches later in day, when the bus shuttle from Tusayan is the recommended mode of entry. On some days there are an estimated 10,000 people on the South Rim at peak times – we recommend not only taking the bus but renting a bicycle and touring the village and rim roads on two wheels. Consider a bike like driving a convertible with the top down – the views are easier to see, but with a bike, the only parking hassles are remembering the combination to your lock.
Arizona Daily Sun
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