Going-to-the-Sun Road costs taxpayers millions of dollars annually. A long-term rehabilitation project will run an additional $180 million, at least. Just how much are we willing to spend on the Treasure State’s crown jewel?
Below The Loop, Going-to-the-Sun Road’s sharp switchback, a Class 5 avalanche buried a 500-foot section of the road 35 feet deep in snow and debris.
A slab of ice and snow packed along Glacier National Park’s Garden Wall let loose in January, triggering a massive 4,000-vertical-foot slide that bulldozed every tree in its path toward McDonald Creek. No one knew about it until a backcountry skier came through the area in March. Avalanche experts later measured the slide’s magnitude as a Class 5, the most destructive.
Today, melting snow reveals thousands of trees, downed like dominos, ensconced in slush and mulch. The destruction’s most visible just below The Loop, the road’s sharp switchback, where incredible views of glacier-carved peaks begin to unfold. The slide buried a 500-foot section of Going-to-the-Sun Road 35-feet deep with debris. Crews somehow plowed through it earlier this spring, creating a cross-section of the avalanche, where tree trunks jut out, pointing downhill, snapped into pieces like kindling.
“Glacier does experience quite large avalanches annually, but it’s oftentimes difficult to actually get to those areas,” says U.S. Geological Survey avalanche forecaster Erich Peitzsch, standing in the avalanche’s path. “So here, since we’re along the road, we can actually experience firsthand the magnitude of this avalanche.”
The stretch of road where Peitzsch stands was barely damaged. But a few miles higher, near Alder Creek, it didn’t fare so well.
“We lost approximately 300 feet of historic wall that was built in 1928,” says John Schnaderbeck, construction project manager for the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHA) Western Federal Lands Highway Division. He says another 200-plus feet of wall built just last year as part of the road’s $180 million rehabilitation project was lost, too. Schnaderbeck points down the road to the damage—fractured pavement on the brink of the cliff.
“Since I’ve been here over the last four years we haven’t lost this much [wall] in a single shot,” he says. “There are always times where you lose 10, 15 feet of it, but nothing to this magnitude.”
The avalanche destruction near the Weeping Wall has diverted crews away from the already staggering amount of work needed to open the road. As Schnaderbeck talks about the damage to the historic wall, three machines work slowly and methodically farther up the road to clear snow from a three-mile ledge leading to Logan Pass. Beyond the machines, the road’s outline on the side of the mountain is nearly lost in a veil of white. At the top, just east of Logan Pass, the machines will still have to tackle the “Big Drift,” a windblown accumulation of snow that can pile 80 feet deep. All this snow is what stands between spring and tourism season.
“The road over Logan Pass will be open no earlier than June 19, and possibly later, depending on road and weather conditions,” declares Glacier spokeswoman Amy Vanderbilt, carefully qualifying the statement.
In other words, the road will open when Mother Nature allows it to open. And whatever else she unleashes on the road between now and then, Glacier National Park will pay to clean it up. The avalanche damage alone adds about $300,000 to the park’s road maintenance budget. Snow removal on Going-to-the-Sun will approach $500,000 if this year is anything like last.
But these costs amount to snowflakes compared to Going-to-the-Sun’s snowballing total tab. The road’s ongoing rehabilitation will continue, at least, for the next five years and cost approximately $180 million. Earlier estimates from the government put the project’s total cost between $270 and $300 million. And there’s no guarantee that the upgrade, no matter how much it costs, won’t be undone by future devastation like last winter’s avalanche. It’s a lot of trouble and money for a damage-prone 50-mile stretch of road open, at most, 120 days a year.
“Some people have asked: Is it worth it?” says Glacier Superintendent Chas Cartwright. “Is even going from $270 million to $180 million, is that still worth it?”
It’s a question Cartwright answers quickly—it is. But understanding how the park plans to pay for it all takes a little more time.
“Money,” he says, “is getting a little harder to come by.”
One steep climb
Montanans watch this process—undoing whatever eight months of alpine winter did to Going-to-the-Sun Road—with bated breath every year. Local officials consider the road the region’s main economic stimulant. Glacier, the country’s 11th most popular national park in 2008, saw about 1.8 million people come through its gates, and the money they spent in the area on lodging, food, gas and retail items makes up a crucial piece of the region’s economic pie.
But the steep attraction comes at a steep price.
The ongoing $180 million rehabilitation of Going-to-the-Sun Road, the first overhaul since it was completed in 1932, stands out as the most expensive road project in the history of the National Park System (NPS). The next most expensive road project in the system, at one-fifth the cost of Going-to-the-Sun Road, is the $36 million replacement of the Humpback Bridge along the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Washington, D.C. More than 7 million drivers traveled that road in 2008, compared to about 1.5 million—or about 85 percent of all Glacier visitors—who drove Going-to-the-Sun Road, according to spokeswoman Vanderbilt.
The cost to overhaul Going-to-the-Sun Road rivals the roughly $307 million of Highway Trust Fund money allocated in FY2008 for the entire state of Montana. That sum made up the bulk of the Montana Department of Transportation’s $411 million budget used to reconstruct, repair and maintain the state’s 25,000 miles of roads.
“[The cost] is a moving target, and that’s one of the challenges we’ve faced,” Vanderbilt says. “Last year, with gas prices at $4.50 per gallon, the cost of construction materials and transportation had doubled from 2005 to 2007. Some of that fluctuated back down because of the change in the economy and the reduction in gas prices. We’ve been looking at how to trim dollars and looking at just the absolute core essentials that still address the historic character and fabric that are part of the equation given that it’s a national historic landmark.”
The federal government shoulders the financial burden for Going-to-the-Sun’s costly upgrade. Of the more than $80 million already secured and largely spent, Sen. Max Baucus earmarked $50 million in the 2005 transportation bill, and $30 million came from the National Park Service (NPS) and other federal sources. In late April, Sens. Baucus and Jon Tester announced another $27.6 million for the road in stimulus money.
Where the rest of the money needed to complete the project—more than $70 million—will come from is anybody’s guess.
“Going-to-the-Sun Road is one of the crown jewels of the Treasure State,” said Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, in April. “I have always fought to make sure the highway gets the investment it needs because it’s a landmark that’s a vital part of our history, heritage and, most importantly, our economy. This is a long-term investment in Montana that will benefit our state and our economy for generations to come.”
The $27.6 million in stimulus money came from the $170 million Congress directed the Federal Highway Administration to spend on federal highways in national parks. Of the 71 projects in 27 parks, Glacier and Great Smoky Mountains National Park split a $60 million chunk. In Glacier, the money will specifically be used to beef up Going-to-the-Sun Road between Big Bend and Logan Pass, a 2.8-mile stretch leading to the road’s apex. That’s about $10 million per mile.
“It’s not just any old road,” says NPS spokesman Jeffrey Olson in response to the cost. “We just don’t look at roads on a per visitor basis or a per car basis. Congress says, ‘This is a national park and it needs roads.’ And our response is that we do the best job we can, always, when we’re spending taxpayer money, and that’s all we can do.”
Part of what makes the road special—and expensive—is the historic stone wall that lines the route. The unobtrusive barrier provides a more natural aesthetic than standard metal guardrails and adds to the overall feel of the historic landmark.
“I will say it’s one of the most expensive elements, if you will,” says Jack Gordon, Glacier’s landscape architect. “When you consider asphalt paving and drainage, parking and road base, scaling and rock-bolting—all those things—I would say that [the stone wall is] probably at the top of the heap. A lot of the stone we have to quarry outside of the park. We just can’t use any old rock.”
Schnaderbeck says masonry work costs between $500 and $1,300 per foot along the road. Some of that work will include fixing part of the wall that was rebuilt last year and wiped out by the January avalanche.
“It’s always more expensive to rebuild something than it is to start from scratch,” Vanderbilt explains. “That’s the reality of any of these old facilities, whether it’s a building or, in this case, a road.”
Paved pay dirt
Glacier National Park and the FHA began chipping away at weathered and worn sections of Going-to-the-Sun Road in the late 1980s, the first efforts to shore up the road since its completion in 1932. The two agencies used $1–$2 million a year to address problem areas throughout the road’s 50 miles. They started with the section of road along Lake McDonald, then a chunk near St. Mary, and then, in 1995 and 1996, they rebuilt the road from Oberlin Bend to Logan Pass, including the parking lot at the pass.
As the park prepared its master plan in the late 1990s, then-Superintendent Dave Mihalic asked how long it would take to rebuild the entire road this way, section by section, with a couple million dollars here and there through the Federal Lands Highway Program. The FHA said it would take 40–50 years.
“The concern was we were going to have a catastrophic failure well before that could ever happen, before it was completed,” Vanderbilt recalls.
The road’s rehabilitation became one of the park’s top priorities. Among the many proposals, including trans and one-way traffic, the park pitched closing Going-to-the-Sun Road for two years so they could fully rebuild it in one fell swoop.
That option didn’t sit well with the business community around the park. “No! You’ll all but kill tourism, which is the backbone to the area!” is what Dori Muehlhof, director of the Flathead Convention and Visitor Bureau, recalls hearing at the time.
The park and the Going-to-the-Sun Road Citizens Advisory Committee eventually compromised in 2003 on a “shared-use” plan, which means the public shares the road with the Federal Highway Administration as it works, little by little, to fix it. The agency agreed to keep traffic delays to a maximum of 30 minutes.
Business owners made the region’s economic dependence on Going-to-the-Sun-Road as crystal clear as Lake McDonald during the debate. In their mind, Going-to-the-Sun Road wasn’t just a sacred cow, but also a cash cow.
Data from the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research (ITRR) indicate that non-resident visitors to Flathead County spent more than $314 million in the region in 2006. Visitors to Glacier County spent more than $68 million.
“All of those aren’t people necessarily going to Glacier, but Glacier is certainly the biggest component,” notes ITRR Director Norma Nickerson, estimating that 75 percent of that money is directly tied to the park.
Quantifying the economic impact of Glacier alone proves difficult because it’s so closely tied to the region’s economy. For example, Glacier serves as the icon for some 200 businesses, according to the National Park Conservation Association’s 2003 “Gateway to Glacier” report.
“The economy of the Flathead has really grown beyond simply looking at ‘tourism’ in narrow terms, as visits to the area by non-residents and their spending,” says economist Larry Swanson of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, co-author of the report. “The attractiveness of the area is behind all types of growth in the Flathead—more people living there as residents, more businesses deciding to locate there, etc.”
But when talking strictly tourism in northwest Montana, business owners say it all hinges on Going-to-the-Sun Road. Sun Tours, operated by Ed DesRosier, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, provides visitors with a native perspective of the route.
“Our business kicks in once the road is open,” says DesRosier, who started Sun Tours 17 years ago. “We do preseason tours and we can go as far as we can go, but we don’t have a lot of interest. I think a lot of people even hold off. We field a lot of calls from people and that’s usually their number one question this time of year: ‘When is the road going to open? Is it open?’ And they don’t necessarily come until the road’s open in its entirety…We’re really selling it mile by mile.”
The local dependence on the road filters down to park employees and road crews, as well. They feel stress to open the road as early as possible, no matter what Mother Nature tosses in their way.
“We get questions and feel the pressure all the time until it opens,” says Glacier architect Jack Gordon. “Of course, we try to do the best we can given the seasons. The pressure on getting these projects done and clearing the road, it’s fairly considerable.”
Around the bend
Park officials and government officials don’t waver in their support of Going-to-the-Sun Road, but one question does give them pause: How will Glacier secure another multimillion-dollar injection required to complete the rehabilitation project?
Superintendent Cartwright, a 22-year veteran of the NPS who’s manned the Glacier post for just more than a year, sounds hopeful that if they keep working, the money will come. He’s just not sure from where.
“The reason I’m optimistic,” he says, “is that we have the last year of the transportation bill money, we have the stimulus money, and we also understand that there will be some other grant opportunities available, which makes it realistic to get—I’m just going to throw out a number—somewhere in the range of $55–$60 million dollars to complete the high-altitude stretch. That’s a big deal.”
Cartwright points only to “rumors” from sources at the FHA and Congress as promise that someone will provide the funding.
“We are understanding that in the near term there’ll be some other opportunities,” he says. “And then there’s also likely to be opportunities when they pass the next transportation bill.”
To make the situation even more tenuous, the flagging economy and Congress’s crackdown on earmarks could cause problems, despite the steadfast support of Baucus and Tester.
“I think we’ll always rely on support from our delegation, and certainly Sen. Baucus has been instrumental, as has been the entire delegation,” Cartwright says. “But I think we’re entering more difficult times where some of those old solutions of getting that direct help are just going to be tougher to come by.
“But if we can get this additional chunk of money,” he continues, “I think we’re looking at somewhere between 2014 and 2016 to be able to get this [high-altitude] stretch done. It sounds a little hazy, but it really depends how we’re able to manage two construction zones, one on each side of the pass. It’s a real balancing act trying to get work done while remaining open.”
Even if the money does come in, the rehabilitation could be short-lived. Glacier officials point out that even after the millions are spent, the road’s rebuilt and the business community exhales, another fix could be necessary.
“What I have heard engineers espouse is that, ideally, every 20 to 30 years there would be a thorough rebuild,” says Vanderbilt. “Perhaps not as substantial as what we’ve seen, but a hearty maintenance program that would keep the road stable.”
By Vanderbilt’s math, that would mean sections of Going-to-the-Sun would require another update as soon as 2025, just 10 years after the initial high-altitude construction is completed. The situation reminds her of a joke told by a former director of the Glacier Country Tourism Commission: “There’s winter, and there’s the season of the orange cones.”
The park’s goal, Cartwright says, is to get to a point where the roughly $8 million per year it’s currently receiving, through the transportation bill and earmarks, is enough to maintain the road once the larger rehabilitation is done. “That’s the regime that we want to get to,” he says.
But with unruly Mother Nature, that plan could quickly find itself underwater. Or snow. Or avalanche debris.
“It seems like with floods or Class 5 avalanches or whatever, there’s always a little chip made in the road. It’s not always 10 steps forward and no steps back. I think that would be amazing if we made it more than a year or two without something that pushed us into a backward direction. I hate to say it, but it’s the way of it. When you’ve got a road pinned to the side of the mountain, I think we just have to assume that something like that could happen.
“Just when you think that you’ve made some progress,” he adds, “a Class 5 avalanche can change your perspective on things.”