WEST GLACIER, Mont. - Supporters of Glacier National Park and fans of its iconic red tour buses are upset that the park's new concessions contract calls for replacing half of the buses with alternative fuel vehicles by 2029.
"I believe it would be an absolute tragedy to eliminate any of the red buses from the fleet," said Bruce Austin, who served on the Red Bus Team that worked to refurbish the fleet from 1999 to 2002. "They should all be kept and refurbished. The public's interest in these vehicles is huge."
The transportation provision of the concession contract now out for bids calls for the complete rehabilitation of at least 15 buses at a cost of no less than $4.1 million by 2025, followed by the replacement of 18 others with alternative fuel vehicles by 2029, at a cost of at least $4.025 million.
The contract would run from January 2014 to December 2029. Glacier Park Inc. holds the current contract, which expires in December. GPI intends to submit another bid, President Cindy Ognjanov said.
John Hagen, president of the Glacier Park Foundation, recently wrote to Glacier Superintendent Kym Hall on behalf of the foundation's membership questioning the reasoning for the transportation requirements in the contract.
"The red bus fleet is a unique and historic resource, probably the oldest operational fleet in the world," Hagen wrote. "Replacing half the buses when all could be renovated at almost the same cost is inappropriate on its face."
Jan Knox, GNP's concession manager, said requiring the entire fleet to be restored could put the 16-year contract out of reach for potential bidders.
"We will try to get as many buses rehabilitated as possible, but requiring that a minimum of 15 buses be restored makes the contract financially viable for bidders," Knox said.
The contract also includes provisions for lodging, retail, food and beverages.
Park spokeswoman Denise Germann said the park understands the foundations concerns and is working with a consultant to address them.
"We love the red buses, too," she said. "We think they are iconic and we have no intention of not keeping the red buses on the road. There is no expectation that we will phase out the fleet."
The prospectus expects the red bus fleet to fail at some point during the term of the contract.
Hagen said the park has not said why it expects the fleet to fail. He believes the buses are on track to continue running well for years after the complete renovation just over a decade ago with the help of a $6.5 million donation from Ford Motor Co.
He said he'd like to see the bid process suspended to allow time for public comment on the future of the red buses.
Germann said by the end of the contract, the 17-passenger buses will have been on the roads for nearly 30 years.
"They're being driven every day, very intensely, for the summer period," she said.
She said the replacement buses would have to be something similar to the red buses that offer the same tourist experience. They would also have to be wheelchair accessible.
Any decommissioned buses would be returned to the National Park Service, Germann said.