There’s a new bus in Utah’s Zion National Park, a state-of-the-art, electric-battery-powered people-mover that is auditioning as a possible replacement to the old propane-fueled buses.

The park’s 20-vehicle fleet, which is credited with saving Zion Canyon from traffic gridlock, is on its last wheels, yet no funding has been set aside to replace it.

In the interim, park officials and Zion’s outside shuttle operator, RATP Dev, are exploring a shift to an electric fleet. A three-month test commenced Aug. 1 when RATP incorporated the Catalyst E2, a new electric model developed by the California firm Proterra, into the shuttle service. For the past two years, the park been considering electric buses, which would put far less air pollution and noise in the narrow canyon and may even reduce operational costs. 

“It’s like the Flintstones and Jetsons side by side.”

— John Marciano, Zion National Park.

“We are testing for a lot of different things,” said park spokesman John Marciano. “We are not anywhere close talking about which bus to use.” 

Marciano noted the sleek new Proterra bus makes an interesting contrast when it cruises past one of the old buses in the canyon.

”It’s night and day. It’s like the Flintstones and Jetsons side by side,” Marciano said.

To cut down on traffic congestion and parking crunches, Zion adopted its shuttle system in 2000. In the years since, visitation has exploded, exceeding 4 million last year. Most tour Zion Canyon and it is unlikely the narrow chasm with its two-lane road and 450 parking places could have accommodated so many visitors without the shuttle system. 

“Having a shuttle fleet has saved the park. Bigger than that is this is the people’s park. They pay taxes to fund the park and they expect to be able to visit,” Marciano said. “We need funding to replace this fleet so we can save the park.”

Crowding has become so severe that Zion is developing a visitation management plan that includes a reservation system among the options under consideration. 

Riding the shuttle is required for most canyon visitors during the high season March through October. The main route is a 8.2-mile nine-stop run between the Visitor Center to the end of the canyon at Temple of Sinawava and the River Walk. Ridership has nearly doubled since 2007, hitting 5.1 million last year. The park provides a separate bus line connecting nine stops in Springdale with the Visitor Center. 

But funding is a stumbling block, even if Zion were to replace the fleet with conventional rigs.

At a time of historic increases in visitation and a multi-billion-dollar backlog of deferred maintenance, the Trump administration is seeking steep budget cuts for the National Park Service. Fitting a $30 million capital expenditure into this picture would be a tough sell.

When the park does replace the buses, officials may have to buy just one at a time, which would be far from ideal.

“They would be triaging the fleet. By the time they replace all the buses, it might be time to start buying new ones,” said David Nimkin, southwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association. “Battery technology is always going to improve. Hopefully they can work out a deal that they can retrofit buses as the technology improves.”

Park City recently acquired six Proterra buses for its municipal transit system as part of its goal to achieve a “net-zero carbon footprint” by 2022

The Catalyst buses seat fewer passengers than the 68 that can sit in Zion’s current fleet of buses and trailers, which are usually operated with people crowded into the aisles. According to RATP, the shuttles average 105 riders per service hour.

“Sustainability is a crucial goal here, and an electric bus fleet gives us the ability to continue to protect the park,” said Frank Austin, RATP’s general manager for the Zion transit system.

The pilot program, Austin said, will ensure an electric fleet “can reliably support the 5,143,148 riders we transported last year under the extreme conditions of the desert. A true crucible test if there ever was one. ”

RATP has run the Zion service for about a decade, and also operates systems at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park and until recently at Utah’s Bryce Canyon.

Company executives framed the test as an effort to better serve a valued client.

“We want to become long-term partners in fulfilling their vision,” said Robert Smith, senior vice-president of operations.