Every year, winter sends a message to Glacier National Park: That famous road clinging to the mountainside, the one that more than a million visitors drive every summer for incredible views of glacier-carved peaks? It probably shouldn't be there.
The message is sent by way of avalanches and snowdrifts that can pile 80 feet deep. And every year, the park works furiously to undo what eight months of alpine winter did to the Going-to-the-Sun Road, all to open it for just two or three months before the snows come again.
This year, the message is louder than ever.
"We've got more snow...than we know what to do with," says Jim Foster, Glacier's chief of facility management. "We can't even find places to put the snow, it's so deep. You're talking about driving through tunnels of snow that are six to seven feet deep."
And that's at the park's lower elevations.
Crews haven't reached—nor have they even seen—the "Big Drift" that awaits them at Logan Pass.
"We're so far away from it it's crazy," Foster says. "This is monumental. Not in any history of any of the people working here do we remember anything like this."
While the snow means plows are working overtime, the real consequences would come with heavy rains. Foster fears massive flooding. He says it could be on par with the aftermath of the "Pineapple Express" storm in November 2006, a freak rain event that caused $6 million in flood damage in the park.
And that might be a best-case scenario.
Foster says current conditions call to mind the epic spring of 1964, when a two-day torrent of rain falling on deep mountain snowpack caused a flash flood so powerful it washed out roads, bridges, and houses throughout the Flathead River System, causing $63 million in damage, according to the Daily Inter Lake. The Flathead's peak streamflow at Columbia Falls, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, reached 176,000 cubic feet per second. (The average peak flow over the last 10 years was 38,380 cubic feet per second.)
The potential for catastrophic damage now is high, Foster says, "and that puts us into another category, where we'd be requesting emergency money."
Whatever the costs of this spring's plowing and repairs, they'll be added to Glacier's tab for the first restoration of the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road since the 1930s—the most expensive road project in the history of the National Park System. About $140 million has been secured, and mostly spent, since 2004, and another $30-40 million will be needed to finish the project. That $170 million amounts to nearly half of the Montana Department of Transportation's annual budget for the entire state.
Where the rest of the restoration money will come from is unclear. The park has long relied on federal appropriations to upgrade the road. Sen. Max Baucus earmarked a total of $13 million in 2004 and 2005, and secured $50 million in the 2005 highway bill. But a few months ago Congress banned earmarks for the next two years. Making matters worse, the Highway Trust Fund faces a severe funding shortfall, which will complicate efforts to find money for Glacier when Congress gets around to reauthorizing the highway bill. And the park can't expect another $27.6 million in stimulus money. It all adds up to a potential funding gap as deep as Lake McDonald.
"Going-to-the-Sun Road is an iconic Montana road and Max has always been supportive of completing the project," says Baucus spokeswoman Kate Downen. "It will be a considerable challenge though, because right now we have to operate under the assumption that earmarks won't be included in the highway bill, and there is a lot of uncertainty about what's going to happen."
Foster says the park's predicament actually isn't as bad as it could be. For starters, he says, the recession's allowed the park to stretch the $50 million in the highway bill "to the nth degree," since construction bids are coming in, he says, between 10 and 20 percent lower than before the economy tanked. Plus, a couple of "fluky" things happened: The road project received an extra $15 million through the FY2010 continuing resolution, Foster says, and another $5 million in stimulus funds that the original recipient couldn't spend.
"All of those things stacking up puts us in a financial situation that's much, much better than we ever anticipated," Foster says.
He expects improvements to the alpine sections of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, from Avalanche Creek to Siyeh Bend on the east side of Logan Pass, to be completed by the fall of 2012. The focus will then shift to the sections between West Glacier and Avalanche Creek, and from Siyeh Bend to St. Mary, which should be completed by 2015.
But the immediate focus is on the spring thaw—and any rain in the forecast. Foster says it's too soon to predict when the road will actually open. In 1964, it didn't open until June 30. Whenever the park gives the green light, Foster says visitors can expect construction delays of 30-40 minutes.
Is it all worth it?
"It's a great question," Foster says.
He believes the park must, in line with the Park Service's mission, preserve the historic landmark and engineering marvel.
"We're dedicated to keep it open as long as the mountain allows us," he continues. "If a catastrophic failure were to happen and we were to drop a significant section of road off the mountain, we probably wouldn't be able to fix it. And the reality is if we were to propose a road like that today, it would never be built—ever...So it's a treasure, a treasure for the American people...a treasure that we feel is worth the investment to maintain."